The ‘Gulag’ State…
Despite the strength of world opinion, expressed through the United Nations as well as by individual governments, the Kádár Government was determined to stick to its line that the ‘uprising’ of the previous autumn had, in fact, been counter-revolutionary. In Hungary itself, there wasn’t much room for discussion or debate about this at the beginning of 1957. On 5 January, the government introduced more stringent measures of control, threatening the death penalty for striking or agitating for a strike, as well as for anyone even disrupting normal work. The leaders of the Csepel Central Workers’ Council, the last organ of the revolution and now of resistance, were arrested. Elek Nagy was sentenced to twelve years in prison, József Bácsi to ten. The Csepel militants went back to work, defeated and disorganised. On 17 January, the Writers’ Union, one of the initial intellectual forces behind the uprising, was dissolved by the authorities. Many intellectuals were arrested and served time in prison, while many others had already managed to escape abroad.
The May Day Demonstration…
On 1 May the Kádár government held a mass demonstration in Heroes’ Square in Budapest, a traditional May Day parade, but this year also designed to show the strength of its support from among the general Hungarian population. As photographs of the event confirm, the square was filled with people, at least a hundred thousand. Some party estimates put it at four times that number. György Lítván, former director of the 1956 Institute, who was himself one of the curious onlookers, explained how…
It was a genuine demonstration by many thousands and it was at the same time forced – not in the physical sense, but maybe in some enterprises there was a bit of pressure; on the other hand many people wanted to show their new orientation, their readiness to support the new régime… It was an experience to see how swiftly people could forget their opinions, their attitude of the previous months and very quickly adjust themselves.
Probably for this reason, much of the recent writing on the events of 1956-57 has tended to ignore the rally, though one exception is the work of Békés (et al.) which asserts that by early 1957 a wave of acceptance had swept over the country and that the turnout for the traditional May Day celebrations in Budapest was simply an expression of this, of a continuity which had been broken, not supplanted, by the memory of October and November. The authors conclude that force alone could not account for the change… but that a feeling of political apathy… had developed due to the litany of strikes, speeches, meetings and negotiations, all of which had come to nothing except the creation of a well of frustration. It was those who sought a means of expression for this who swelled the considerable ranks of the political establishment of the Rákosi-Gérő régime, members of the party and its huge bureaucracy as well as other ordinary citizens who either supported the régime of felt no particular apathy toward it. Some of these people…
… had undoubtedly felt terrorized during the revolution because of their status or sympathies, and possibly humiliated or remorseful in its aftermath… Contrary to general opinion in Hungary today, this group represented a not inconsiderable proportion of the overall population.
While these crowds may, genuinely, have celebrated a combination of liberation and victory, that does not mean, as the régime’s sources claim, that the sympathy of the entire country was demonstrated in the event. This is no more credible than the UN Special Committee’s 1957 report on Hungary which claimed that, following the Soviet intervention of 4 November, in the light of the evidence it had received, that it may safely be said that the whole population of Budapest took part in the resistance. The means by which Kádár managed, through a clever combination of stick and carrot, to generate sufficient support to establish a régime which lasted thirty-three years, is well summarised in László Kontler’s recent History of Hungary. For him, the Heroes’ Square May Day demonstration was one of…
…acquiescence, if not sympathy, by the people of a capital which, after the shocks of invasion and destitution, could not but want to believe in the message of tranquility and safety that the concessions transmitted.
Party membership rose from a mere 40,000 in December 1956 to 400,000 a year later. Despite the efforts of Revai, who returned from Moscow in January 1957 and tried to arrange a reversal to ‘orthodoxy’, Kádár received assurances from Khrushchev and was confirmed in his position at the party conference in June through the election of a centralist leadership, including Marosán and others not implicated in the pre-1956 illegalities, like Ferenc Münnich, Gyula Kállai, Jenő Foch and Dezső Nemes. At the same time, the reorganised Patriotic Popular Front, whose new task was to transmit and popularise party priorities to society at large, was chaired by the hardliner, Antal Apró. After the disintegration of the Alliance of Working Youth, the Communist Youth League was set up in March 1957 to take care of the ideological orientation of young people and ensure a supply of future cadres. Purges and voluntary resignations among the officer corps, the confirmation of first Kádár and then Münnich in the premiership, and the approval of his policies in May, all consolidated the restoration of the party at the centre of state power. In addition, the external guarantee was signed on 27 May, by which the Soviet troops were given temporary residence in Hungary. Their number became stabilised at around 80,000 once the Hungarian army was considered politically reliable.
The People’s Court…
Sándór Kopácsi, the deposed Chief of Police, later recorded the harsh system of repression to which he and the other internees of the Budapest gaol were subjected. On the morning of 6 February, 1958, the prisoners were lined up in the corridor. He met Pál Maleter again, whom he hadn’t seen since they had crossed Budapest, singing, on a Soviet half-tank a year previously. From a third cell emerged Zoltán Tildy, the former President of Hungary, and a former Protestant pastor, a minister in Nagy’s government who had negotiated the surrender of parliament to the Soviets. He had been under house arrest throughout almost the whole of the Rákosi years and was now, aged seventy, imprisoned again. They were joined by four other prisoners and then Imre Nagy himself:
He came out of the cell as if he were coming out of a meeting room, his face preoccupied. I found him a bit thinner, but the build was the same: the peasant or the sixty-year-old blacksmith, the village strongman in the most commanding period of his life. The legendary pince-nez straddled his nose as before. For an instant, he turned toward us and his glance passed us in review… He gave each of us a brief, friendly nod. Our presence seemed to reassure him… We were to be tried by the Supreme Court in order to rule out the possibility of an appeal. The judge was Zoltán Rado, a seasoned man, fat and rather friendly…
This turned out to be a rehearsal, however, though Moscow’s order to interrupt the proceedings didn’t arrive until the next day. They were all accused of having fomented a plot aimed at reversing by force the legal order of the Republic of Hungary. In addition, Nagy was accused of high treason, and Maleter and Kopácsi with mutiny. Then József Szilágyi was called forward and, when asked if he acknowledged his guilt, he replied:
In this country, the only guilty one is a traitor named János Kádár Supported by the bayonets of the Soviet imperialists, he has drowned the revolution of his people in blood.
There followed a sharp and bitter exchange between Rado and Szilágyi. Except for Nagy, the prisoners were all then returned to their cells. During the next two days of hearings, the Kremlin changed its mind four times as to what verdicts would be pronounced. Khrushchev found himself in an awkward position, since his policy of reconciliation with Tito was shaky. At the time of its second intervention, the Kremlin was still counting on Tito’s friendship and, to begin with, he got it, but after the kidnapping of Nagy and his entourage from the Yugoslav Embassy, relations between Moscow and Belgrade deteriorated, and they had remained strained in November 1957 when Tito refused to accept the hegemony of the Soviets over the ‘fraternal parties’ at a conference of world Communist parties. When Khrushchev interrupted the Nagy trial and sent Kádár to Belgrade to negotiate with Tito, the latter leader told Kádár:
You have to do it like Gomulka: Fight to get the maximum of independence vis-à-vis the Russians and we’ll support you.
When Kádár told Khrushchev of this ‘duplicity’, he became furious, and his desire to teach Tito a lesson explains why, two years after the Hungarian Uprising had been quelled, and the population pacified, the Russians relentlessly pursued the trials and executions of the Nagy government. However, Kopácsi had saved Kádár’s life at the time of the uprising, and Kádár managed to persuade the Russians that he should not be executed, in exchange for his help in convicting Nagy. First it was Szilágyi’s turn, however. After a brief trial in which Kopácsi was a forced witness, he was sentenced to death, and his hanging was carried out on 24 April in the prison courtyard. He climbed the scaffold, head held high, declaiming, long live free and independent Hungary!
At the trial of the other defendants, the prosecution tried to prove that they had been part of a Nagy conspiracy which had begun in 1955, and that, allied to the forces of reaction, both within the country and outside they had provoked the counter-revolution to re-establish the old regime. They asked for the death sentence against Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes, the young journalist. For Kopácsi, they requested life imprisonment. On 14 June, Nagy spoke to the court:
Twice I tried to save the honour of the word “Socialism” in the Danube River Valley: in 1953 and 1956. The first time I was thwarted by Rákosi, the second time by the armed might of the Soviet Union. Now I must give my life for ideas. I give it willingly. After what you have done with it, it’s not worth anything any more. I know that History will condemn my assassins. There is only one thing that would disgust me: if my name was rehabilitated by those who killed me.
He was followed by Pál Maleter, who said he had respected the oath of a socialist soldier and went with the people through fire and storm. Kopácsi spoke of how he had fought in northern Hungary with the Soviet Army, and that even in October 1956 he never had a Russian uniform in (his) sights. Revolution isn’t simple, he said. Neither is what follows it, whether the revolution is victorious or otherwise. The ‘People’s Court’ condemned to death Imre Nagy, Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes. Kopácsi was sentenced to life imprisonment, Ferenc Donáth to twelve years, Ferenc Jánosi to eight years, Zoltán Tildy to six and the journalist Miklós Vásárhélyi to five. Imre Nagy refused to enter a plea for clemency, and although Maleter’s and Grimes’ lawyers made appeals on behalf of their clients, both were rejected.
The Graveless Dead…
Cover of the 2008 film about the arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution of Imre Nagy
At 6 a.m. on Monday 16 June, Nagy, Maleter and Gimes were hanged in the yard known as the ‘little dungeon’ at the central prison. Everybody was ordered to keep away from the windows. According to the prison ‘information agency’, the Russians forced Nagy to be present while the others were executed. He stood, tottering, at the entrance to the yard. If the report is correct, this was the second time he had had to witness the execution of an innocent friend. In 1949, Rákosi had forced him to attend the hanging of Rajk, who had been personally promised by Kádár that his life would be spared and who, before dying, cried out, János, you tricked me!
The last words of Nagy and Maleter, spoken from the gallows, were the same: Long live independent and Socialist Hungary! Gimes remained silent. The Soviet authorities were apparently satisfied. Pravda described the verdicts as severe but just. Peking’s major paper carried the headline, Good news from Budapest! When Choi En-lai had visited Hungary some months previously he had complained that not enough people had been hanged. Khrushchev had demonstrated to him and Mao that his hand didn’t tremble when dealing with deviationists.
Serov, the KGB chief, however, felt that leaving Kopácsi and the others alive was a scandal. The day after the executions, he began trying to correct what he viewed as the leniency of the Budapest court. On the direct order of the Hungarian emissary of the KGB, Hungarian Politburo members Antal Apró and Karoly Kiss organised public meetings to gain support for cancelling the verdict and demanding that everyone in the Nagy group be hanged. The two men went to the large metallurgical factory, Ganz Mavag, to prime workers to push for these demands. There would be a vote taken at a general by a show of hands. The result seemed assured, but several former Resistance fighters at the factory prevented the KGB from going too far. General László Gyurkó asked to speak, having been sent by the Partisans’ Union. He briefly described the Resistance background of those who would be the victims of further death sentences. He urged the meeting to reject the idea of interfering in the verdicts already pronounced. The show of hands defeated the proposal, and with it Serov’s hard-line. The workers’ meeting demonstrated that there were different currents of opinion in Budapest, and that there was no widespread support for further retribution.
In September 1958, Sándór Kopácsi was transferred to the central prison where the executions had taken place six weeks earlier. In May 1959, the political prisoners were moved again, this time to Vác prison, fifty kilometres from Budapest, which was full of criminals. Tibor Dery, the elderly writer was thrown into a cell with a murderer who beat him badly in exchange for alcohol and tobacco from the ÁVH captain. Kopácsi intervened to stop this, and Dery survived his detention to become president of the Writers’ Union and write many more works. The police chief then found himself thrown into ‘the hold’ for two weeks before being put on ‘coal duty’, pushing a hundred kilos from a boat on the Danube for ten hours every day. He realised that this was the ÁVH’s way of finishing him off, so he asked to see the prison commandant, who was a Holocaust survivor. Kopácsi was relieved of his duties. The following year, the writers were given an amnesty, but the Imre Nagyists as they were known, were not yet released. A hunger strike went through the prison and the ÁVH imposed a total blackout. Many of the Nagyists were transferred back to Fő utca and threatened with death. Several committed suicide. The Vác prison became an ÁVH hell, with the prisoners deprived of the most elemental rights. Even the guards were beaten. Kopácsi remarked:
It would have been the end of us if our community hadn’t been what it was, a team prepared for any ordeal. It was in prison that I learned to respect strength of character, the last defence of a man in distress… What moved me most… was the ingenuousness and tenacity of the prisoners. Despite the dense network of informers, we manufactured radios that were good enough to bring in the news from Western stations. At any given time there was hardly a cell that didn’t have its own miniature receiver, the size of a coin and lacking for nothing… Thanks to the radios, gipsy music played late into the night in the ears of the poor jailbirds dreaming of the bustling life outside the prison walls.
After seven years in prison, Kopácsi and the other Nagyists finally said goodbye on 25 March, 1963, thanks to the general amnesty decreed by Khrushchev to mark the implementation of the détente he had worked out with President Kennedy after the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous October.
By this time, 1960s, the tone, if not the content, of the comments made from both ‘outside observers’ and exiles towards the régime had also softened somewhat. In 1962, Eric Bourne, the journalist who had written his eye-witness accounts of the uprising, commented in The Christian Science Monitor that…
Few Hungarians these days talk about the uprising… Many – with varying mental reservations – fall in with the régime’s general effort at conciliation and accept the ‘guided’ liberalisation from the top with relief. But it is evident that the liberalisation has its calculated limits and that the régime, which has gone further than any other in Eastern Europe with de-Stalinization, is concerned to keep the process from getting out of hand.
Two ‘émigré’ journalists, the first, Lászlo Tikos, exiled in the USA, and the second, George Pálóczi-Horváth, in Britain and broadcasting on the BBC, made the following optimistic comments:
Hungarians now enjoy greater personal, spiritual and political freedom, an increased measure of national independence and economic well-being, and an end to isolation from the West – all things that the 1956 revolution stood for and that are now more in evidence than at any other time since the Communist take-over. (Tikos)
When we were marching on that revolutionary protest march, if anyone had told us that in five or six years life would be in Hungary as it is now, we would have been very pleased, because it would have accomplished a great deal, if not everything we wanted to achieve. (Pálóczi-Horváth)
As a former political prisoner, however, Sándór Kopácsi continued to receive the attention of the ÁVH and its network of informants. One day at work he casually remarked that on the outside he was surrounded by as many informers as he had been in prison. The remark was reported and the next day he was summoned to the Fő utca ÁVH HQ. He was told that he had broken the rule prohibiting a liberated prisoner from revealing anything he had experienced in prison. The penalty for this was a further ten years in prison, so he denied the report and agreed to sign a statement reiterating his promise not to infringe the regulation. He and his wife met dozens of other spies; on foot, on the tram, in the bus, and even on the doorstep of their apartment. They openly asked him for news about himself and others of his prison comrades he might have been in contact with. There were so many that they decided to invite the least disagreeable of them in for coffee, or got them to take them for country drives if they had cars.
Their daughter Judit’s life was made unbearable, however. From the day her father was imprisoned, she was made the object of official discrimination. At school, she was put on a list of children deemed socially alien. Her mother went to see the principal:
‘Socially alien to whom?’
‘To the workers’ state,’ the principal replied with a straight face.
‘My daughter has nothing but working-class ancestors, on her father’s side as well as her mother’s side, for four generations.’
‘Agreed,’ said the principal. But her father has betrayed the working class.’
Some of the children at the school took advantage of the situation to tease Judit mercilessly, possibly encouraged by the teachers and the parents. The bullying got so bad that, at the age of fourteen to fifteen, she was seriously contemplating suicide. An old social democrat, whom Kopácsi had rescued from the ÁVH in 1952 and who had subsequently escaped as a refugee in 1956, came to the family’s help. He had settled in Quebec and had become a Canadian citizen. He was visiting Hungary, and called on the Kopácsis. He and his wife offered to take charge of Judit, but her father said they could not part from her. Soon afterwards, however, Judit tried to poison herself. Kopácsi wrote to László Sárosi and six weeks later she was on the plane to Quebec. They did not see her for another six years, by which time she was a Canadian citizen. Finally frustrated by their inability to speak freely, Sándor and Ibolya Kopácsi emigrated to join their daughter, then with a family of her own, in 1974. They settled in Toronto, where Sándor ended his working life at Ontario Hydro.
Progress and Reaction…
Later in the year that Kopácsi was released, in June 1963, the United Nations agreed to normalise relations with Hungary following the general amnesty. The US was also seeking to move towards a policy of seeking gradual change in Eastern Europe. In Hungary, some restrictions were slowly relaxed, especially in cultural spheres, and a new economic course continued to be followed. Kádár famously announced, whoever is not against us is with us, allowing a broadening of discussion and debate. Nonetheless, relations between the US, in particular, and Hungary remained strained, and were exacerbated by the actions of Hungarian troops in August 1968, when they took part in the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to remove the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek, which had come to power in the Prague Spring. The first full US Ambassador, appointed a year before, noted Kádár’s…
… early endorsement of reformist developments in Czechoslovakia, his widely publicised meditator role, and his apparently only last-minute conversion to a need for forceful measures.
Even the man who admitted signing the request for the Soviet invasion in 1956 (three days after it happened), András Hegedűs, openly condemned the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As a result, and although he had been Rákosi’s prime minister, he was fired from his job as a statistician and expelled from the party. In Britain, too, Hungary’s part in the armed intervention led to a setback for developing cultural links. The emerging civic links between Coventry and its twin-town of Kecskemét in the midlands of Hungary had to be ‘put on ice’, and were not fully defrosted again until the Cold War entered its permanent thaw in 1989.
Re-burial and Reconciliation…
As 1989 began, a momentous year in European history, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law allowing citizens to form independent associations, including political parties, thus paving the war for an eventual end to Communist rule. In February, a groundbreaking report prepared by a historical commission of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party officially rejected the interpretation of the 1956 Uprising as a counter-revolution. Instead, it was described as a popular uprising against the existing state power, since under Stalin, the ideal of international communism was turned into a merciless imperial programme. This was followed in June by an important step designed to heal old wounds and come to terms with the events of 1956-58. Imre Nagy, Pál Maléter and three others executed in 1958 received a public reburial and state funeral, attended by an estimated 250,000 Hungarians, broadcast nationwide on state-controlled radio and television. The ceremony also paid tribute to the hundreds of others who had died in the retribution meted out by the Kádár Government. The next day, János Kádár died. These developments led to much open public discussion about the events of 1956, for the first time. On the anniversary of the uprising on 23 October 1989, Mátyás Szűrös, the Acting President, proclaimed the new, democratic constitution of a country now called “the Republic of Hungary”, no longer the “Hungarian People’s Republic”, the ‘different’ country I had entered just a week before.
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.
Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States and Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.
Sándor Kopácsi (1989), In the Name of the Working Class. London: Fontana.