1989-2006: Revolution restored?…
By the Spring of 1989, there were new men and women in the leadership of the leading Communist Party, or HSWP, who were ready to accelerate the process of change and, literally, to resurrect Imre Nagy and his legacy. BBC Correspondent, John Simpson had first met Imre Pozsgay in 1983:
He talked like an Austrian socialist. On one occasion, Kádár had referred to him as ‘impertinent’… Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time… an intellectual by instinct and training, he had worked his way up through the system, until in May 1988 he and those who thought like him in the Party were strong enough to call a special congress and vote Kádár out of power.
Kádár’s place as First Secretary was taken by Károly Grósz, and Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo, and soon the dominant ‘reformer’ in the leadership. The process of political change was speeded up and, following the appointment of an historical commission in the autumn, it was Pozsgay who announced in February 1989 that the events of 1956 had been a popular uprising rather than an attempt at counter-revolution. Although Kádár had been replaced as the leading figure, he was still a figurehead, and this still remained the most delicate subject in Hungarian politics, and the Party Central Committee did not go as far as Pozsgay. However, in June 1989, permission was given to exhume the bodies of Imre Nagy and the other ministers of the revolutionary government. Their unmarked graves had been found in waste ground. On the anniversary of his execution in 1958, 16 June, their coffins lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. The honouring of Nagy and his colleagues in this way was a turning point in the accelerating changes of 1989-90, but it was also a matter of setting straight the historical record in the public memory, since it confirmed the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the 1956 events and expunged forever, at least from the official lexicon, the ‘counter-revolutionary’ tag far more effectively than any historical commission or mere legal rehabilitation could do. In a very public way, Hungary had at last come to terms with its past, banishing the shadow of a third of a century.
However, acts of commemoration do not, of themselves, write or rewrite history. Historians do that, and they have continued to engage with the events of 1956 in the context of Hungary’s twenty-year transition into a pluralist ‘republic’ and, more recently, the advent of an authoritarian-nationalist parliamentary ‘régime’. The primacy of politics over history is evident in the continuation of widely variant interpretations of the events, especially in the past decade between the fiftieth and the sixtieth anniversaries.
János Kádár remained as a token president until his death later that summer. Though he was not involved in any major decision-making, still no-one dared to oust him. He became seriously ill, beginning with a stroke the day after he had lost power, in May 1988, though he had always been in good health before. He had become increasingly paralysed over the following year. On 12 April 1989 there was a closed meeting of the Central Committee of the Party, where the most important issues of the reforms were to be discussed. Kádár was not supposed to be there, and Grósz even asked him not to attend, but he turned up to speak, though not even able to write down what he wanted to say. He had already been questioned for months by journalists sent to him by Grósz, about his role in the events of 1956. The speech Kádár gave at the Central Committee provides evidence of his state of mind as a tortured soul. He was allowed to speak, although it was agreed that the recording would never be made public. However, it was leaked to the press, possibly by the reform wing, or by the chairman himself. The following extracts are what can be deciphered from it. Referring to the events surrounding his disappearance from the Soviet Embassy on 1 November, he commented:
… I was at once in a company where my ‘mania’ was sure not to prevail… I don’t remember how many people there were there (in the meeting with the Soviet leaders)… I misunderstood something…
What he seems to imply by this is that he misunderstood what the Soviets were asking him when they asked him if he wanted to be the First Secretary and whether he would restore order in Hungary. After all, he had just become the effective party leader after Gérő’s departure, albeit on a temporary basis. Yet, might he not have asked what ‘restoring order’ meant? Perhaps he did, but still agreed to their proposal for fear that, if he didn’t, he would end up in Siberia, not Szolnok:
Tell me, then, what was I supposed to do… when my most important aim then was to get safely to Szolnok by any possible way… no matter who surrounded me… to get there?
And I had other duties too… I assumed responsibility for those who were staying at the (Yugoslav) Embassy… But I, naive man, I assumed responsibility because I thought that my request, that two people should make a declaration, so that legally the people of their rank could not refer to it. Historically, I see everything differently now but, according to their wish at that time… The demand of those two (Nagy and Losonczy) was that they be allowed to go home freely. I couldn’t fulfil that because… /voice fades/.
At the time, Kádár allowed the events of the kidnapping of those seeking asylum in the Yugoslav Embassy to be explained as the sole responsibility of the Soviets. It was also the Soviets alone who had arranged the deportation of the group to Romania with the agreement of the Bucharest leaders, he claimed, and this was commonly believed to be the case into the 1990s. But, since then, historians have found this to be untrue, especially referring to Yugoslav evidence consisting of primary sources consisting of correspondence and official papers, referred to in earlier blogs. We also know that Kádár himself planned the deportations as well as the evidence to be presented at the trial of Imre Nagy. He had even made the political (central) committee vote for the death penalty for Nagy and the others who were executed. An outline of the trial had been made in Moscow, but the detail was added in Budapest, as in the previous Rajk trial.
Commenting on the definition of the Uprising as a ‘fascist’ counter-revolution, he had this to say in his ‘last speech’ of 1989:
If it was not a counter-revolution, I don’t know what we can refer to it as.
His ‘decision’ to refer to the events of 23-30 October as such was, it is now argued, also made largely under Soviet pressure, since they wanted to ensure that he could not turn round and characterise their ‘military assistance’ as an aggressive act of invasion when it suited him to change sides again and rejoin the revisionists. They knew that if he used the word ‘fascist’ the West, at a point so close to the second world war, would be given enough justification for non-intervention. However, it is also clear that Kádár believed in his statement made at the time, and continued to believe it in his final speech. Referencing the events taking place on the streets, especially the lynchings of 30 October, what he heard on the radio, what went on at party meetings, Kádár argued that there was no other way of referring to the entire events of that week. He also pointed out that the 1957 Central Political Committee indirectly voted for the execution of Imre Nagy and others and that (somewhat improbably) those now sitting in front of him had been participants in this decision.
In making this ‘nightmarish’ speech, flitting between his limited consciousness of both 1956 and 1989, Kádár has been likened to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The forest started walking towards him and the borderline between fantasy and reality dissolved. Nevertheless, he concluded with some cogent, if jumbled, points in his own defence:
I will answer the most immediate charge, that which torments me most… why I do not speak up. My doctor tells me that I shouldn’t make this unscripted speech. But I can’t remain passive and unable to answer. I can’t stand that, it makes me sick. And what do we remember? The platform freedom-fighters… fought with arms… I declare, at my own risk, even if I do make mistakes, I will speak out because I am a very old man with many diseases, so I don’t care if I get shot…
It is not my fault that it’s only after thirty-two years such a question has arisen, because we have had so many party congresses and meetings. Nobody ever criticised my view that the uprising became a counter-revolution… I realised it on the 28th (October) when, irrespective of clothes, skin colour, or anything else… unarmed people were killed in a pogrom… They were killed well before Imre Nagy and his friends…
By the end of May 1989, long sections of the fence along the Austrian border had been removed (supposedly for repair), and János Kádár had been relieved of all his offices. He died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated by the Supreme Court. Kádár was buried on 14 July, in a state funeral which reminded the same dramatist of the Danish courtiers standing by the coffin of Claudius, the usurper, who had reigned for thirty-three years.
Bob Dent, the British journalist and author of a book about 1956, originally written in English for the 2006 anniversary, and recently translated into Hungarian for the sixtieth commemoration, has also written his recollections of how the book was first received. Many of the journalists who requested interviews were interested to know how, as a foreigner, not even an émigré Magyar, he had dared to write about Hungary’s ‘sacred history’ of 1956. Of course, it was soon obvious that most of the journalists had not read the book! By examining and presenting conflicting versions of the same events, and by trying to give an appreciation of differing accounts of 1956, the book became a work about history itself and, by implication, about how history can be very selective and how, therefore, the past can be used for different purposes. In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith is made to repeat the party slogan, who controls the past controls the future. Dent re-phrases this and applies it to Hungary:
Who controls the present controls the past.
When they examine the versions of 1956 which have been produced since 1988-90, historians can witness to the truth of this statement. When I was shown around Hungary in these years, one of my hosts was a Catholic priest, who looked as if he was old enough to remember the events, being at least fifteen years older than myself (I was born in 1957). When I asked him what he remembered, he told me that if I really wanted to know what life was like, I should look no further than Orwell’s great book. That was what his Catholic family had experienced, he said. Even though I had also met previously with an underground Catholic resistance group, it was difficult to envisage the level of persecution, until I read more about the events, and talked to many other participants. Then I re-read 1984, and began to understand what Stalinism meant in 1948-56. Until 1989, the people of Eastern Europe had lost control of their own future, and with it their own past. Now they had control back over both.
The official view of 1956 during the Kádár era had focused on the atrocities which took place, especially the lynchings and shootings which took place after the siege of the Party’s headquarters in Köztársaság tér on 30 October. The entire uprising became associated with those terrible events which some argued revealed the true face of the uprising. It was powerful propaganda, constantly emphasised in books and essays.
After 1989 the view became more positive and there was a tendency to play down the atrocities of 30th. In many accounts they were simply left out, as if forgotten. They didn’t fit the new image of the new republic. They muddied the waters. They had contributed towards the ‘quick’ acceptance and consolidation of the Kádár régime, not only by the Party faithful, but also by a broad cross-section of the general population as well. The problem with this approach is that it has left the field open to those who have highlighted what went on in the square for the purposes of condemning the entire uprising negatively as a ‘counter-revolution’.
Bob Dent goes on to point out that confronting the matter head-on is, of course, not easy, involving not only the issue of ‘mass violence’, but also that of revolutionary violence itself, and that of the inherent ‘hatred’ in the uprising. In 1991, a symbolic foundation stone was placed in the square referring to all the martyrs and victims of 1956. Dent, however, argues that if any kind of monument of atonement or reconciliation is ever to be raised… the difficult issues of 1956 will have to be tackled first. On the 38th anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy, President Árpád Göncz gave a speech in which he stated:
Everyone has the right to interpret 1956, but no-one has the right to expropriate 1956. Only the knowledge of the undistorted truth can mellow the one-time confrontation into peace.
The meaning of these words has still to sink in more than two decades later. Attempts to ‘expropriate’ 1956 have continued unabated, as exemplified by the different political parties and veterans’ organisations holding separate commemorations on 23 October on the fiftieth anniversary in 2006. Dent is convinced that we should all be wary when someone claims that his or her ’56 is the only ’56. He finds it strange that, following the multi-party elections of 1990, the newly elected members of parliament considered it to be their first duty to enact into law the historical significance of 1956 as an event that can only be compared with the anti-Habsburg struggle of 1848-9. Does it mean, he asks, that if someone were to compare 1956 with, say, the anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt uprising they would be breaking the law? He points out, with some justification, that the unfortunate result of the confusing variety of interpretations of 1956 is the withdrawal of interest, that I myself have witnessed, of the majority of those who were not directly involved, especially those among the unborn generations. Surveys have repeatedly shown that knowledge of, and interest in, the events of 1956, is particularly low among those having no direct experience of them.
In some respect this is surprising, given the momentous nature of those events and the fact that they involved, in the main, Hungarians fighting against fellow Hungarians. There were no major engagements with Soviet forces until the second intervention of the Red Army. This indisputable fact challenges the widely accepted, yet simplistic view that 1956 can only be understood as a struggle of the united Hungarian nation against Soviet rule. The results of a 2003 public opinion survey about attitudes to 1956 showed that sixteen per cent of respondents still held the view that the events constituted a ‘counter-revolution’, the official view of the Kádár régime, fourteen years after it was discredited. Of the other 84%, 53% were content with the term ‘revolution’, while 14% preferred the term ‘people’s uprising’ and 13% saw it as a ‘freedom struggle’. On the issue of terminology, Dent concludes that the 1956 events constituted a ‘counter-revolution’ in the Kádár era due to:
…the destruction of communist symbols and attacks on party buildings, the ‘fascist’ atrocities which took place, and the belief that the underlying orientation of the events was towards a restoration of capitalist relations of production.
None of these, in his view, can be substantiated sufficiently to warrant the label being applied overall. Though red stars and hammers and sickles were torn down from buildings and cut out from national flags and banners, many Party members participated in the events, from the rank and file among the street fighters to the workers’ councils, often neglected by recent historians, to Imre Nagy and his government ministers and generals. The attacks on the Party were attacks on its monopolies and methods, not on the basic concepts of socialism and workers’ control of the means of production. It is understandable, however, that some in the Party leadership thought that this was the case since, in line with Leninist precepts, they thought that the Party had to uphold its power as the leading representative of working class interests. Even the leaders of other parties involved in the short-lived Nagy government, like Béla Kovács, of the Smallholders’ Party, warned their supporters against any idea of a restoration of landowners and capitalists:
No-one should dream of going back to the world of aristocrats, bankers and capitalists. That world is definitely gone!
These words of Kovács, appointed minister of agriculture by Nagy, were echoed in countless proclamations issued at the time, most notably by the workers’ councils. The factory is ours and should remain so under workers’ management was a common theme. The irony here is that, although the revolutionary element in the events of October-December 1956 was best represented in many district, town and village councils, and most notably by workers’ councils, it is exactly these councils which have been ignored in the recent re-writing of the history of the uprising and resistance to Soviet control of these months. For instance, The Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents, edited by Csaba Békés et. al. (2002), contains 118 documents, not one of which is a workers’ council document, probably because the editors were primarily concerned with the issues of Hungarian national-level politics and the country’s international relations.
Interestingly, one public figure who did highlight the theme on a number of occasions before his death in 2014 was Árpád Göncz, an activist in 1956, subsequently imprisoned before becoming President in 1990. During his ten-year presidency, Göncz highlighted the role of the workers’ councils on a number of occasions. In his 1992 speech for the 36th anniversary, he included the following perceptive words:
The multi-party parliamentary system of western Europe hardly tolerates the type of direct democracy which made our revolution victorious via the directly elected workers’ and revolutionary councils controlled by workplace and residential communities.
The speech was not fully given, as Göncz was interrupted on 23 October by noisy right-wing demonstrators. As a result, however, the content of the speech was widely published in the Hungarian press, and later in a collection (by Európa Press).
Even after leaving office, Göncz continued to speak and write about the contribution the workers made through their councils, claiming that their role was ‘decisive’, adding that the demand for workers’ ownership had actually been achieved in October 1956. In an interview for Népszava on 22 October 2004, he described the formation of the workers’ councils as one of the most important steps of the revolution. For other post-1989 public figures, as well as for recent historians in Hungary and elsewhere, the paradoxical notion of the councils as ‘anti-Soviet soviets’ has been difficult to digest, so that the tendency has been to ignore them.
Dent and others have tended to avoid the issue of definition of the events of 1956 by using the contemporary English language label ‘Uprising’, which is how it was referred to in the international press and at the UN. When it became the official definition of the Party in 1989, however, as a ‘people’s uprising’, Dent coined a new term, ‘social explosion’ to describe the events. Unfortunately, the vagueness of the term means that it adds very little value to the coinage of historians, even if it helps, temporarily at least, to avoid political labelling. Progressive Hungarians, including exiles, have always referred to it by the same word used for the other ‘revolutions’ in Hungarian history (1848, 1918), forradalom. This is where I believe it belongs.
In his useful book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976; 1988, Fontana), Raymond Williams established two key concepts related to Revolution. The first, the seventeenth-century concept, was that of the image of the wheel turning, to emphasise the turning upside-down of an established political order. The second, developing out of the revolutions of 1789-1848, was the sense of the…
… bringing about a wholly new social order… greatly strengthened by the socialist movement, and this led to some complexity in the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism. From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order… and the more limited modification or reform of an existing order. The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also usually an argument about ends… one of the crucial senses of the word, early and late, restorative or innovative, had been simply (to indicate) important or fundamental change.
Interestingly, Williams does not include a reference to ‘counter-revolution’ (ellenforradalom in Hungarian), suggesting that it was purely a Stalinist construct and not one, as a Marxist himself, he considered important to include even in the definition of the main word. He does, however, include a definition of reactionary as an antonym of revolutionary since the nineteenth century. From these definitions, I believe that, from a historical perspective, it should not be so difficult to interpret the events of October 1956 as a revolution, and the reactionary measures of November-December, taken by the Soviets and its Kádár régime in Hungary, as a counter-revolution leading to the restoration of a communist dictatorship, albeit in an ultimately more benign form.
During the fiftieth anniversary of 2006, quite predictably, politicians and public figures made selective use of the collective memory of 1956 to bolster their positions and attack those of their opponents. One idea which re-emerged involved the notion that the changes of 1989-90 were the eventual realisation of the ideals of 1956. Dent challenges this view by arguing that 1989 involved elements which had not been present in 1956. What made the events of 1956 truly revolutionary was the coral growth of factory-based workers’ councils and locally based revolutionary committees all over the country. The first workers’ council to appear was established in Diósgyor, in the industrial northeast, on 22 October, the eve of the beginning of events in the capital, and the last to dissolve (itself) was at Csepel on 11 January 1957. As Göncz commented, these bodies represented a form of direct democracy which was different from both the western parliamentary systems and the centralised, monolithic system modelled by the USSR and imposed on its satellite states. This was also, above all, was what represented a new order and fashioned the events of 1956-57 into a revolution.
As an undergraduate, I remember reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and especially her writing on the Kronstadt Uprising and the Hungarian Revolution. She described how workers’ councils, wherever they have appeared in history,
… were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies and their leaders from right to left, and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists.
Demands for privatisation and the development of a free-market economy in 1989-90 went far beyond the demands of 1956, which were for workers’ control and ownership. Neither were the demands for a re-orientation of the country as a central European state in 1956, looking both east and west, in any way comparable with the interest in joining the European Economic Community, not even ‘born’ then. The demand for neutrality in 1956 was also a long way from envisaging future membership of NATO, though the crushing of the early bid for independence did motivate Hungarian leaders to move quickly towards full membership in the 1990s. Despite this, their aim was not achieved until 1999. The attempts to ‘merge’ past and present are well-expressed in these photos…
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa.
Bob Dent (2008), Inside Hungary from Outside. Budapest: Európa; especially chapter nine, My Very Own 1956.
John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.
John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. London: Macmillan.
Margaret Rooke (1986), The Hungarian Revolt of 1956 – János Kádár: traitor or saviour. London: Longman.