1956 and All That Remains… A Matter of Interpretation(s): Part One   Leave a comment


1966-1989: Kádár and the Counter-revolutionaries: 

In the mid-1960s, from the vantage point of a decade further on, some of the principal goals of the Hungarian Revolution seemed, to some external commentators, such as Andrew Georgy, to have been accomplished. Leaving aside the professed rise in living standards and the advent of a degree of consumerism, it was clear to them that what they saw as the superhuman, and frequently suicidal, efforts of anti-Communist nationalism had achieved two main results. The first of these was the shaking up of the Communist régimes and substituting more acceptable, nationally orientated Communist leaders for the extreme and uncompromising Stalinists. Secondly, the Stalinist monolith was fatally weakened by the demands of for differentiated status on a country-by-country basis, in effect also terminating  satellite dependency on the USSR. They helped to set the stage for a phase of pluralism in Eastern Europe. In 1966, J F Brown wrote in The New Eastern Europe that…

…what later evolved into the Kádár ‘New Course’ was caused by two factors. The first, and most important, was the need to establish some rapport with the people. The second was the very narrow base of Kádár’s support within his own Party… This atmosphere of relaxation and public decency was not reserved for the Party. It spread over the whole population…

Many Hungarians would agree, if challenged, that Kádár was the best leader Hungary could have had in the circumstances. This astonishing metamorphosis of Kádár, from the despised traitor of 1956 to the grudgingly acknowledged leader of 1964, was made possible by two factors. The first concerned the population itself. The events of October-November 1956 produced a profound disillusionment in Hungary. The collapse of the Revolution and the failure of the Western powers to come to its aid caused many many Hungarians to reappraise drastically their country’s situation. Stark realism compelled them to accept Soviet hegemony of the Communist political system for an indefinite period… The task now was to make that period as comfortable and tolerable as possible. The second factor was Kádár’s policy of conciliation; Hungarians compared this policy with Rákosi’s, and they knew which they preferred.  

The slackening hold of the USSR was further revealed by its allowing Romania to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact in 1967, although its internal policy remained firmly Stalinist, as well as by the slowness with which the Soviet leadership moved to keep Czechoslovakia in the Communist fold in the following year.  In Hungary in 1968 there were signs of a nascent pluralism among the political élite. The New Economic Mechanism officially introduced private incentive and individual enterprise into the economy. Trade unions were also given renewed muscle, and non-Communist Party candidates were allowed to stand in parliamentary elections. But though non-Party activity was permitted, only the Communist-dominated Fatherland Front was allowed to exist as a political organisation. As one historian commented in this period;

The cage is more comfortable but the bars are still there and the keeper still keeps his eyes open.

Following the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Brezhnev reiterated the Soviet leadership’s hard-line view in relation to the ‘satellite states’ of ‘Eastern Europe’:

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union has always been in favour of every socialist country determining the concrete forms of its development along the road to socialism, taking into account the specific character of its national conditions. But we know, comrades, that there are also general laws of socialist construction, deviations from which lead to deviations from socialism as such. And when internal and external forces try to turn the development of any socialist country backwards to a capitalist restoration, when a threat arises to the cause of socialism in that country, a threat to the security of the socialist community as a whole, that it is no longer an issue only for the people of that country in question, but a general issue which is the concern of all the socialist countries.

Obviously such an action as military aid to a fraternal country in warding off a menace to the socialist system is an extra-ordinary enforced measure that can be evoked only by direct actions on the part of the enemies of socialism within a country and outside it, actions which create a threat to the common interests of the socialist camp…

In his New Year address of January 1969, PM Jenö Fock made it clear that there were still such ‘enemies of the people’ in Hungary whom the government needed to watch carefully if not take action against:

There are people who do not care for the building of socialism, people living at the expense of society; there are politically indifferent groups and enemies waiting to exploit possible Party and government errors; and there are others who consciously act in an unlawful manner, inciting to, organising and committing political crimes.

What Hungary was experiencing was a massive rise in living standards. Moonlighting to make more money in the new relaxed economy, became common. The new co-operatives made peasants’ incomes higher than those for industrial workers. But Hungary had weekend cottage socialism as many urban workers were able to afford a small holiday home near a lake or river, in addition to their standard panel-built flat. In material terms, as well as in terms of personal autonomy, Kádár had succeeded to the point of seeing the country suffer the decline in virtues and values which followed on from prosperity – apathy, money-grubbing and high rates of divorce, abortion and suicide.

In 1969, Kádár had an interview with an Italian journalist from L’Unita, the newspaper of the Italian Communist Party. In it, he claimed that the Hungarian Workers’ Party had been most successful when it stuck to Marxist-Leninist principles, rather than to dogmatism, as it had done under Rákosi, or to revisionism, as under Nagy. So, after 4.11.56, its first task was…

… to put the Communists, and all those who believed in socialism, back on their feet and to unite them. But we laid no stress on separating from the real enemies of socialism and those who had been misled, whose number was not small…

The statement… which has in a certain sense become a slogan, ‘who is not against us is for us’, is an expression of this policy…

We try to get the Communists respected and followed by non-Party people because of the work done by them for society. We declare at the same time that the same rights and esteem are due to everybody who participates in the work of socialist construction and does a proper job, irrespective of Party membership, ideology, origin or occupation.

These ideas determine our relationship not only to the masses of workers and peasants, but also to the creative intellectuals…

We also know full well that socialism does not only mean a larger loaf of bread, better housing, a refrigerator and maybe a car but primarily new social relationships and new human ties.

In the early 1970s, it remained impossible for anything but the official interpretation of the events of 1956-58 to gain reference among contemporaries and historians. Yet it was in this realm of ideology that the régime met its most striking defeat. In essence, Kádár’s democratic centralism was a pragmatic means of strengthening the legitimacy of his régime by concentrating on economic modernisation and de-politicising certain administrative functions.

In his memoirs, written in 1971, Khrushchev tried to represent his 1958 visit to Hungary as a turning point for the Hungarian working classes:

Because I was a former miner myself, I felt I could take a tough line with the coal-miners. I said I was ashamed of  my brother-miners who hadn’t raised either their voices or their fists against the counter-revolution. The miners said they were sorry. They repented of having committed a serious political blunder, and they promised that they would do everything they could not to let such a thing happen ever again… 

In contrast to this account, we know that, though widespread apathy and atomisation reappeared among the Csepel workers after their return to work in January 1957, and despite the threat of a death penalty for anyone found ‘agitating’, there was continued passive resistance among them which culminated in rumbling discontent during Khrushchev’s 1958 visit to the factory. Journalist Sandy Gall was there, covering the visit for Britain’s Independent Television News. He recalled Khrushchev giving a speech over the factory’s loudspeakers at the end of a shift. In his memoirs, Gall recalls the Csepel workers simply walking away, not stopping to listen. If we take this account at face value, we have every reason to doubt that Hungary’s coal-miners, some of whom had been shot during the invasion, would have reacted in a radically different way to Khrushchev’s rebukes. It is also difficult to see how historians could give any credence to these reminiscences as evidence of anything other than an exercise in retrospective propaganda. According to this…

The Hungarian people were grateful to us and our army for having fulfilled our internationalist duty in helping to liquidate the counter-revolutionary mutiny… Everyone who spoke expressed his true feelings… Comrade Kádár said,… ‘There is no resentment in our country against the presence of your troops on our territory.’

By 1974, Comrade Kádár was, according to the journalist William Shawcross, who wrote Crime and Compromise, summing up his position in Hungary, the most popular leader in the Warsaw Pact. Over the previous eighteen years, and out of the rubble of the revolution and reprisals, Kádár had somehow managed to construct one of the most reasonable, sane and efficient Communist states in the world. Hungarians spoke of their country as the gayest barracks in the Socialist camp, praising Kádár for this achievement. From being almost universally loathed for the way he had first betrayed László Rajk in 1949 and then Imre Nagy in 1956, he was, apparently, so highly regarded by his people… that…

Hungary today is personified by Kádár and many Hungarians are convinced that without him their country would be a very different and probably far worse place to live.

Five years later, George Schopflin attended a conference of young workers in Hungary on modern Hungarian history and wrote of how confused the participants were about the events of 1956, and what led up to them. For him, the principal features of modern Hungary included…

social inequality exacerbated by an increasingly rigid stratification and low mobility; aspirations which are in no way collectivist; weak institutionalisation; the survival of authoritarian attitudes in human relations and corresponding weakness in democracy. To what extent criticism of these and other topics influences policy-makers is extremely difficult to gauge. Obviously, published work does have some kind of impact, but against that, policy-makers appear to be reluctant to initiate major changes. Stability shading off into a fairly comfortable stagnation seems to be the main feature of the Kádár model of the 1970s.

An opinion survey of Hungarian intellectuals conducted a year earlier confirms a similar sociological anaesthesia among them. According to the author, there were four kinds of ‘taboos’ among them:

The first is well-known and concerns links with the Soviets and foreign policy questions in general. Second, it is forbidden to criticise in any way the armed forces, the judiciary and the internal security organs. Third, though it is generally not known by most people, it is not allowed to criticise anyone by name. Of course, in this case we are talking about people who are alive. The reason must be the need for ‘cadre stability’, so no-one need worry about being attacked from outside… Fourth, certain facts and subjects may not be subjected to sharp criticism. These could be brought out in an anecdotal fashion, in an Aesopian language or by way of a cut-and-dried technical analysis, but not in a radical manner.

In October 1981, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, Gordon Brook-Shepherd wrote a commemorative article for The Sunday Telegraph. He remarked that it was one thing to hear the widespread opinions, even of anti-Communist intellectuals in Budapest, that Kádár was the mainstay of Hungary’s hard-won stability and unity, but quite something else to hear the survivors from a feudal world (whose lavish hospitality with such modest means was… touching) declaring that, despite his atheism, Kádár was a good man. For these small-holding ‘peasants’, who had made their dutiful daughter break off her her engagement to the son of a local party boss, things were, on the whole, better… than they used to be.  They had been convinced of the irrelevance of much of the fine talk of a generation earlier, of what turned out to be empty Western rhetoric unsupported by action or aid. ‘Freedom’ for their daughter’s generation was defined as a small apartment in the town or city and a weekend house, a shorter wait for a better car, perhaps a Lada to replace the Trabant,  and more frequent foreign travel. For intellectuals, freedom consisted in the privilege to go on censoring ourselves, as one of them put it. Brook-Shepherd concluded that they had learnt that, in Kádár’s Hungary, if you do not get what you like, you eventually like what you get.

In May 1982, Kádár’s seventieth birthday was celebrated. In an article for The Guardian, Hella Pick wrote that not only did Hungarians want to congratulate him, but that they hoped he would stay in power for many more years. Despite his betrayal of the Nagy government and his support for the Soviet suppression of the revolt in 1956, resulting in so many deaths and emigration, during the period which he was feared and reviled,…

… much of what Mr Kádár did has been put into the back drawer of memory. It may not have been forgotten or forgiven but the Hungarians do accept that János Káadár… genuinely helped them to rise from the ashes of the Uprising to regain both self-respect and world respect.

In the same year, historian Robin Okey also wrote, that in retrospect, the events of 1956 … showed that ‘national Communism’ was never likely to bring about fundamental change:

Essentially a highly personalised amalgam of Marxist ideas and patriotic instincts, it proved to be an unstable basis for a broader movement and gravitated under pressure either to its nationalist or its Communist poles.

Between 1956 and 1982, both the rulers and the ruled in Eastern Europe concerned themselves more and more with ‘bread and butter’ issues, as an antidote to alternating periods of hope and disillusionment. Communist leaders were more conscious of the need to dangle the carrot of affluence in front of their peoples, rather than beating them with the stick of dogmatic ideology. A Hungary in which he who is not against us is for us best represented the sort of society that seemed possible within the limits again set by the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Marxism must  not be treated  as dogma, but as a set of essential principles reflecting changing social and economic realities. The weekend cottage socialism of the 1980s was hardly what the revolutionaries of 1956 demanded, but it did epitomise the sense of personal independence felt by many in the mid-1980s. It is sometimes easier, and less confusing, to die than to live. In 1956 Kádár chose to live rather than the martyrdom suffered by so many of his comrades and compatriots, the path which he himself had vowed to follow in his speech to Parliament and Andropov on the day he disappeared from public view.

Even at the end of the 1980s, the general view of the man and his ‘era’ was that,  at the cost of immense immediate unpopularity only gradually softening into grudging acceptance, he had salvaged something from the wreckage that was Hungary in 1956. Writers from both sides of the iron curtain agreed that by accepting the hatred of his people, he had saved them in a very real material sense. The BBC correspondent John Simpson echoed this sense, albeit in a less sentimental tone, shortly after Kádár’s in 1989:

The man whom Moscow selected to govern Hungary and return it to orthodoxy was a strange, secretive figure. János Kádár might have been undistinguished as a political thinker, but he was a survivor whose ideas evolved remarkably over the years. He had suffered personally under Stalinism. He usually kept his hands hidden when he met foreign visitors, but if you looked closely you could still see the marks where his finger-nails had been torn out by the secret police in Rákosi’s time. When he was imposed on Hungary in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 uprising he was loathed by the great majority of his people. Yet Khrushchev had chosen well. Kádár was never loved, but by the mid-1960s he had shown sufficient independence to earn the grudging support of many Hungarians.

Eventually, moving with immense care and slowness, he edged away from the rest of the Soviet bloc in economic terms. Managers ran their own factories with minimal interference from the Ministry of Heavy Industry in Budapest. Workers were given access after hours to the machinery of their plant so that they could produce goods which they could sell privately. The authorities had realised that the workers were doing it anyway, so they tried to make sure it happened only during their time off. Farmers sold to a free market. None of it worked particularly well, but it was a great deal more efficient than any other socialist economy. Leonid Brezhnev recommended the Hungarian way as the model for the Soviet Union and the rest of its allies, without seeming to realise that it undermined the old system of centralised planning. When Margaret Thatcher visited Hungary in 1984, she received a rapturous reception from ordinary people when she walked down the main shopping street of Budapest. Kádár, hearing of this, tried the same thing a few days later. No one took any notice of him.



It was in this context that the attempts at further reform won excessive and flattering judgements in the West. This reverence for him in the West was at least partly born out of a sense of deep guilt that Hungary had been abandoned to its own fate by them in 1956. Simpson himself, though only a short-trousered schoolboy at the time, remembered how the events of the fateful year had been talked of in his school, with those in Egypt being treated as if they were part of a Boy’s Own yarn:

When Colonel Nasser threatened our control of the Suez Canal, it was necessary to teach him a lesson.

“These Gippos only understand one thing” Captain Fleming told us during a Latin class, and we all nodded eagerly; though we weren’t quite sure what the one thing was which they understood… And then, one dark afternoon in November 1956, the whole world seemed to change, melting like ice under our feet. Our elderly English master, who had retired from a big London public school and was humane enough to read us ghost stories… was intoning in a ghostly manner, when one of the older boys, his voice crackling and breaking, burst excitedly into the room.  

“The Headmaster’s compliments, sir, and I’m to tell you we’re at war with Egypt. 

The class erupted into cheers. That was the stuff to give the old Gippos! They had it coming to them, cheeky buggers. They only understood one thing. British and best.

And yet, extraordinarily enough, it turned out that not everyone though the same way. Some of the boys came to school the next day full of their father’s opposition to the whole business. My own father, always so forthright about everything, seemed suddenly unsure.

Within days it was clear that things had gone very wrong… We weren’t a superpower after all… Our pretensions as a nation were revealed to the world as empty. It wasn’t merely wrong to have attacked Egypt, it was stupid. In the meantime the Russians took advantage of the distraction to crush the Hungarian Uprising in the most brutal way possible. After it was all over… no one… said ‘British and best’, or ‘Don’t panic – remember you’re British’. It was the start of thirty years or more of intense national self-degradation… we came to feel ashamed of it all: the Establishment, the old boy network, the class system, the Empire. It was a long time before we even started to feel comfortable with ourselves again, and by then everything had changed forever.

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising that both the British and the Americans were happy to subscribe to the myth that Hungary was working out its own salvation, even at the time of Mrs Thatcher’s 1984 visit. The reality, as we now know, was that, even at that time, and certainly by the late 1980s, as in the Soviet Union and elsewhere in Eastern bloc countries, it was becoming public knowledge that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of thirty billion dollars, most of it in two reckless years of spending. This was, in fact, where Kádár’s ‘goulash communism’ had led, as István Lazar wrote in 1992, and who knew where it would lead on to?:

… this was what the divergence of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable living standard, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone will have its effect felt for decades, and will cripple all renewal.

In spite of these fairy-tale foundations to the apparent economic success of the happiest barrack in the camp, it was largely due to Kádár’s leadership that Hungary had become the only country where the system had successfully evolved away from Marxism-Leninism. This was because before 1956, conditions in Hungary were in many respects far worse than those elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The 1956 Uprising was a reaction to such vicious excesses as those in the concentration camp at Recsk, in the Mátra mountains north of  Budapest, where political prisoners worked for fifteen hours a day cutting andesite from the quarry and carrying it with their bare hands. When Nikita Khrushchev had spoken out about such horrors of Stalinism, people believed he would accept the democratic changes set out by the Nagy government.  They also believed that the West would help persuade him. But Nagy, Simpson wrote,…

… was thirty years too early Khrushchev was no Gorbachev, and the 1950s was not the time for a satellite country like Hungary to slip into neutrality.


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