Archive for the ‘Discourse Analysis’ Category

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.

Hungary back under the heel: 1957-1968 (and beyond).   Leave a comment

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)

Perpetual Persecution…

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…

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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.

Why I (still) will not go gentle into that nightmare of a disintegrating Europe.   3 comments

1973-78: A Common Market or a Project for Peace?

My childhood and youth were spent in ‘splendid isolation’ from the rest of Europe. My grandfather had almost made it to the Western Front in 1917, having lied about his age in order to join up. He made it as far as Catterick Barracks in Yorkshire for training, when his whole battalion was struck down by the flu epidemic. He only survived because his mother travelled up from Coventry and demanded her son back, producing his birth certificate. He returned home to a reserved occupation as a coal-miner. The only time I set foot outside the UK was on a 1966 trip to Dublin, where my father had qualified as a Baptist minister during the war. It was just after the IRA had blown up Nelson’s Column to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Dublin Uprising. My parents went to Switzerland and Austria on ministers’ conventions in the early seventies, and came back with cuckoo clocks and stories of their attempts to cross the Alps in our ‘baby elephant’, the Morris Minor, our first car. Neither I, nor any of my three siblings had set foot on ‘the continent’ until my elder sister went to stay with her pen-friend in Brittany, aged sixteen. Apart from Mme Barsoux, our French ‘mistress’ (or so we wished!), my sister’s penfriend was the only ‘foreigner’ we had met when she stayed with us in Birmingham in 1973, the year Britain joined the ‘Common Market’. At the same time, we grew up going to school with Jewish, Cypriot, Punjabi, Pakistani, Afro-Caribbean, Poles, Irish and Welsh kids for best mates. These were not ‘foreign’ to us; we were all ‘Brummies’, though our parents sometimes felt and thought differently. Support for Enoch Powell and the National Front was growing in Smethwick, where my father’s chapel was, and Powell’s views on Europe also found fertile ground in the leafy suburb of Edgbaston where we lived. I remember a conversation at the manse in 1974, in which my Dad, named ‘Arthur James’ after the former Conservative PM and Foreign Secretary, A J Balfour, told his young Church secretary that he was voting Labour, as Powell had advocated, in order to get the referendum in which he would vote for withdrawal.

1975 referendum

Unlike the more internationally minded and Labour-controlled city of Coventry, where my mother’s family lived, Birmingham and the Black Country remained a strongly ‘protectionist’ industrial conurbation, and sixth-form arguments at my grammar school  reflected this. Most of my school mates were either sons of small businessmen and stockbrokers, or their fathers worked in the still-thriving motor works at Longbridge. They thought the EEC was destroying engineering jobs on the one hand, giving our contributions to lazy French farmers and preventing our imports of New Zealand lamb and butter. My father argued that it was an enterprise of greed, a ‘rich man’s club’, ripping off the rest of the world which the British Empire had done so much to civilise and improve through its imperial trade and missionaries. He was not alone; these were popular ideas in the early seventies, and not without supportive evidence. However, my generation could see that the world was moving on, and that our Britain would need to move with it or it would be left to rot in post-industrial, post-imperial ‘squalor’. We studied John Donne, D H Lawrence and Wilfred Owen for ‘A’ Level English, rather than Kipling, and realised that ‘no man is an island’ and that patriotism was not enough. In our hearts and minds the case for international peace and security were more convincing, especially with conflicts in the Middle East threatening to spark a third world war which threatened to end our lives before they had begun. The referendum debate may have begun as an argument about the price of eggs, but it ended as a question of survival and political progress. When the British people voted to remain, we felt like they had lifted the sword of Damocles from over our young heads.

However, there was still much to feel pessimistic about. The IRA had bombed Birmingham the year before, killing twenty-one teenagers and narrowly missing me in the Rotunda Burger Bar and on the number six bus on the way home. More than forty years later, we’re still campaigning for justice for the 21 and their families, and a European arrest warrant looks like the only remaining option. The Cold War was showing few signs of a permanent thaw. Europe was divided, both east and west, and border controls were being reinforced. I decided to study history rather than law, since looking back seemed the best way of ignoring the gathering gloom ahead. Nevertheless, I joined CND and the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, marching to the US base at Lakenheath in Suffolk. I became the archetypal ‘angry young man’ in order to look forward. My first experience of working with pan-European campaigners was when attending the European Congress of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in London in April 1977. I had already been on a ground-breaking visit of Welsh and Scottish FoR members to Iona Abbey in the summer of 1976, when I committed myself to being a ‘minister of reconciliation’. My reconciliation work began that autumn with engaging in the conflict between Welsh-speakers and English-speakers in Bangor, challenging those who wanted to ring ‘Y Fro Gymraeg’ (the Welsh-speaking Homeland) with a border to keep out English-speaking immigrants and restrictions on numbers of non-Welsh-speaking students. I also became fascinated by modern European history, from the radical sects of the Protestant Reformation in Germany and Switzerland to the syndicalists and Social Democrats of the early twentieth century. These activities and academic interests set me on a path of long-term association with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).

1978-1988: Decentralism and Internationalism


Academic success and a determination not to return to the cold confines of Little England combined to send me to south Wales, where I could bury myself in the Big Country of the coal-mining valleys and the ambient internationalism of its coastal cities. I led a successful student campaign for a Welsh-medium teaching board within the federal University of Wales, but the determined drive for devolution  ended in the debacle of the referendum vote of 1 March 1979, and then, after the May General Election, faced the full force of Thatcherism hit Wales during my year as sabbatical NUS President (that’s me in the middle above). The two events were inextricably linked. The devolution vote was closely associated with the unpopular Callaghan government and, in Wales, with a corrupt Labour establishment. I quietly continued my research on migration, together with involvement in various socialist education movements in Britain and Ireland. I trained for teaching in Carmarthen and helped organise one of the biggest CND rallies ever held in Wales, when thousands packed Trinity College to hear the historian E P Thompson address a rally in 1982. It was a high water mark in the unilateral campaign, however, and following the Falklands War, the Thatcher government was returned to Westminster and a blue wave transformed the political map of Wales.

I reconciled myself to quietist exile as a teacher in Lancashire, where I renewed my contact with the Society of Friends, before returning to my mother’s home in Coventry. Due to the blanket bombing of the city during the second world war, which my mother witnessed and survived, Coventry and its Cathedral have reached out to more than fifty war-torn cities and towns throughout Europe and the world. I had grown up very aware of this history and these connections and was determine, through my  contacts with the Quakers, to contribute to the ongoing reconciliation work in educational contexts. Making contact with the One World Education Group at the teachers’ centre in the city, I began an advisory role with the West Midlands Quaker Peace Education Project, based at Woodbrooke College in Selly Oak, Birmingham. From 1987 to 1990 I was responsible for teams of teachers developing resource packs on diverse conflict and reconciliation themes and situations, for the fortieth anniversary of the Blitz on Coventry, supporting the attempts to bridge sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland’s schools, overcoming the racial prejudices and ethnic stereotypes of students in schools throughout the West Midlands, encouraging discussion on ‘apartheid’ in South Africa and Britain, and enabling  constructive debate on unilateral and multilateral alternatives in disarmament talks and East-West relations in Europe and NATO countries. These activities took me to Belfast and Londonderry in one direction and, in the other to Bonn, then still the West German federal capital, for the world-wide Congress of International Teachers for Peace and to Brussels, for an EU Congress on Education for Peace in the schools of the member states, representing the UK and presenting the resources we had been working on in schools throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I was also invited to Berlin, but my determination to complete my doctoral thesis, together with a certain nervousness, justified by later revelations about the activities of the ‘Stasi’ led me to decline the offer. Instead, we forged links with Hungarian Teachers for Peace which led to the renewal of twinning links between Coventry and Kecskemét, facilitated by the respective councils and Coventry LEA’s Teachers’ Centre.  During this time I also taught European Studies at a Technical and Vocational College in Dudley in the West Midlands, developing my knowledge of the work of the European institutions.

1988-89: First Adventures in Hungary

My first visit to Hungary was as a guest of the Hungarian Peace Council, a semi-autonomous educational and cultural organisation, in October 1988. The country, although leading the way among the ‘Soviet satellite’ countries in free-market reforms, was still firmly within the Warsaw Pact. On arriving at Ferihegy airport, a fellow colleague on the Quaker delegation who was well-traveled ‘behind the iron curtain’ and aware that this was my first visit to a central-eastern European country, asked if I was afraid of seeing armed guards at the airport. Having seen heavily armed British soldiers on the streets of Belfast and Derry, and at checkpoints throughout the province, I told him that it was not the display of potential violence which intimidated me, but the thought of unidentifiable guards at the hotels we would be staying at. They remained unidentifiable, however, either because they were very well camouflaged, or because they no longer existed in large numbers, and those that did were largely uninterested in a small group of western teachers, even though our leader was himself Hungarian, a refugee from the 1956 Soviet invasion of the country.

Tom was returning for the first time since he had escaped as a fourteen-year-old under the barbed wire that he himself was to cut and be given a piece of the next year. On our second day we visited Esztergom, the ‘seat’ of the Archbishops of Hungary, on the Danube bend. As we looked across the great river and its destroyed bridges at what has become Slovakia, our Peace Council guide told us that we were looking at the country which would be the last in the Eastern bloc to reform. We knew enough before coming about the Husak régime to agree with her. On returning to the minibus, we found our driver listening carefully, but excitedly, to the radio. The Hungarian Foreign Minister and Secretary of State had just made two announcements: that Soviet troops would begin withdrawing from the country the next year, and that the Uprising which had begun on that day, 23 October, in 1956, would no longer be referred to officially as a ‘Counter-Revolution’. We knew that we were there at the beginning of something, though the busts of Lenin remained on prominent display in the schools we visited, in Budapest, Szeged and Hodmezóvársáhely over the following week.

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My second visit was as co-ordinator of the Coventry-Kecskemét Teachers’ Exchange in July 1989. This began a day after the leaders of the world’s seven richest non-Communist nations met at the Paris Summit on 14 July. Mrs Thatcher had annoyed French opinion by doubting the value of their Revolution, whose two hundredth anniversary it was. Generally, our group was on the side of French opinion and the socialist President Mitterrand, who is supposed to have described her as having the mouth of Brigitte Bardot and the eyes of Caligula. Nevertheless, she seemed unassailable as Britain’s prime minister. It was less than nine months later, however, that she felt the backwash of people power from the East, combined with her political vulnerability following the EU Maastricht Treaty crisis at Westminster. The Franco-German relationship and supremacy within the EU had not yet been threatened by the French fears of a reunited Germany. By contrast, the Soviet Union was almost on its knees. Gorbachev had already declared the Cold War over, meaning that the Soviet Union had been obliged to give up its attempt to compete with the US both militarily and economically. Shortly before our visit, in June, the body of Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister executed in 1958 for ‘leading’ the 1956 Uprising, had been given an honourable reburial in Budapest, with the leaders of the reforming Communists and the masses of freedom campaigners in attendance.

When the seven ‘western’ leaders met in July, 1989 was more than half over. No one around the table at the Arche suggested that 1989 might turn out to be a year of revolution on the scale of 1789, nor that there would be any revolutions in Europe in 1989. There was evolution in Poland and Hungary, and there was something starting to pass for evolution in Bulgaria, as well as the evolution in the Soviet Union itself. There, it was felt, the process ended, and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe seemed fixed in political permafrost. The conventional wisdom was that the current generation of leaders, including Honecker, Ceausescu and Husak, would have to die off before there could be meaningful change. At the Sommet de l’Arche, the world was still divided into three parts: the West, the Communist bloc and the uncommitted Third World. That division was over by the end of the year. Later, the falling of the dominoes came to seem inevitable, but at the time there was no such inevitability about it. Nevertheless, by the time President Bush visited Budapest at the end of July, Hungary had effectively ceased to be either a Communist country or a Soviet satellite. Senior politicians were, even then, talking of joining the European Community and NATO. Small things played a huge part, like the ‘picnic in the woods’ initiative in Hungary, near the Austrian border, in August, which enabled a number of East German ‘holiday-makers’ to escape to the West, and the ‘repairs’ to the barbed-wire fence along the border (below).

Hungarian border guards open the gate to freedom

Our visit was one of these small things, perhaps. A group of English teachers from the pleasant, provincial Hungarian town of Kecskemét had been our guests in Coventry the previous Spring, enabling them to take part in the annual International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language Conference at the University of Warwick. Our purpose in visiting Kecskemét was largely of a civic and cultural nature, as the schools in Hungary had broken up for the summer a month earlier. We met the Mayor, and I have quoted from the record of this meeting in an article on 1989 elsewhere on this web-site, and from other reports made at the time. During the visit, I met and became engaged to my wife, Stefi, so for me the link between the two towns became a personal one. I paid my third visit a year after my first one, in October 1989. I entered one country and left another, without crossing another border. How was this possible? While I was in Hungary, visiting its beautiful southern cathedral city of Pécs with my fiancée  in an Indian summer, on 23 October, it changed its constitution of fifty years, from ‘the Hungarian Peoples’ Republic’ to ‘the Republic of Hungary’ (see picture with text below) and announced that the first free elections since 1945 would take place the following Spring.


002Before that, in January, Stefi and I had a celebration of our forthcoming marriage at the Friends Meeting House in Bourneville, Birmingham. Tom was present, together with British colleagues from our exchange visits, family, Friends and friends, and gave ministry in which he read from Quaker Advices Queries, advising us to continue to ‘live adventurously’.

By this time, almost all of the former dictatorships behind the ‘iron curtain’ had collapsed, though it was unclear, as yet, as to what they would be replaced by. Even today, it is unclear whether these central-eastern European states, with the exception of the old DDR, will become stable liberal democracies.

Hungary is no longer a Republic, since it changed its constitution five years ago and has recently erected a tall, barbed wire fence along large sections of its southern borders in order to keep out migrants and refugees. Poland, the Czech Republic (about to change its name) and Slovakia are also led by populist nationalists like Viktor Órban (below), refusing to relocate their share of refugees, and a British exit in the west might provide the catalyst for a break with the EU in the east, particularly if no common solution is found to the refugee/migrant crisis.

Orban in Brussels2

1990-1996: The Hungarian Democratic Transition

Spring came early to Hungary in 1990. I arrived on a crisp, bright Valentine’s Day ahead of our wedding at the splendid, art-nouveau town hall on St. Patrick’s Day, and began work as an Associate Tutor of Birmingham University’s Education Faculty, training Hungarian teachers of English at Kecskemét College of Education. Funded locally by the Ministry of Education, I was also responsible for establishing an exchange between student teachers, and writing an application to the European Commission for further funding from its TEMPUS programme, set up to support triangular exchanges of lecturers and students with the emerging democracies in central-eastern Europe. Submitted in French and English, the application also involved the College of Rennes in Brittany. I also found myself working alongside US colleagues who came to Hungary with the Peace Corps programme from February 1990. This meant that we were able to offer a wide range of courses in both varieties of English, but the main priority was to educate future teachers through English as a medium. In March, the Soviet Union and Hungary reached an agreement by which all Soviet troops would be withdrawn by July 1991. Until then it was not unusual to see Red Army generals in full uniform striding through the streets of Kecskemét, which had several barracks surrounding it, together with a military airfield. In the depths of the cold winter of 1990-91, I was the only person who stepped out into the snow to help an ordinary ‘Ruszki’ push his broken-down Lada along the main street into the town.


The Hungarian democratic transition gathered pace throughout the long spring of  1990. I was in the country for the first phase of election on 25 March, and remember the now famous poster “Goodbye, Comrade” (above), showing the back of a Russian general’s head, stuck to the lamppost below my in-laws’ apartment where we beginning our married lives before the money from the ministry came through for us to find our own little attic flat. At the College of Education, meanwhile, I gave a presentation on the British Higher Education system to the staff conference. The customary letter from the Education Ministry which had always begun these meetings, giving the term’s directives, had simply said “now you are free to do whatever you think best.” An elderly colleague observed that “it was the job of the ministry to tell us what it is best to think!” The “British” model that I laid out, in translation, was that of an Institute of Higher Education, comprising Technical, Vocational and Teacher-training colleges, which would eventually gain university status. This process is coming to a conclusion in July 2016, perhaps a mark of how much the democratic transition slowed in pace after the heady days of its first spring.

When the second phase of voting took place on 8 April, I was already back in ‘Blighty’, completing my work for the Quakers on the Conflict and Reconciliation pack for schools, which also involved a return trip to Belfast to finalize the materials with the teachers from the West Midlands and Northern Ireland. A visit to the recently bombed-out church of the Rev Gordon Gray was a humbling experience, demonstrating just how much work there was still to do. Yet there was hope of a political process getting underway and the EMU (Education for Mutual Understanding) Programme had run its course. It was the only Peace Education programme in the UK ever to receive official government support and funding. Our ‘mutual’ pack of materials was published by the Christian Education Movement the following year, and went into all its member schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Back in Hungary, reconciling and unifying figures were elected into office. In May, József Antall of the Hungarian Democratic Forum had become Prime Minister, and the National Assembly chose Árpád Göncz of the Alliance of Free Democrats as its President. He was an anglophile who had spent six years in prison for taking part in the 1956 Uprising, during which time he usefully translated Tolkien into Hungarian. Looking back, Árpi bácsi (uncle Arpi) as he was affectionately known was just the sort of wise old hobbit that Hungary needed, and he looked the part too! He died in 2015, and was deeply mourned, as was József Antall when he died from cancer after too short a time in office.

001I continued to teach and to organise the exchange programme for the students from Kecskemét College who visited the Selly Oak Colleges with us in January 1991, and to edit the application for TEMPUS funding. While we sojourned in Birmingham, my first son was born in Kecskemét. The teacher-trainees from Westhill and Newman Colleges came to Kecskemét later that spring, attending placements in schools, social services, and doing research projects in Hungarian villages. The research has since been published in English, and is available on this web-site. One of the Hungarian participants, Hajnalka Szigeti (above left), later became a primary school teacher in Hastings, where she married a British man and has a dual nationality family. In the summer of 1991, I returned to the UK, with my new family, to live in Coventry and teach at Westhill and Newman Colleges. During that time, another group of students from Kecskemét visited Selly Oak, and we also played hosts at home to students of English from Italy, Switzerland, Lithuania and, of course, Hungary. We often took them on day trips to Stratford and Warwick Castle.

Looking to return to Hungary for family reasons, I was then offered a post by Devon County Council. Their councillors were united, across the political spectrum, in the belief that teachers in Devon schools often lacked the broader European awareness which was needed if its fisheries, industries and services were to continue to be competitive within the single market. As I had connections in both North and South Devon, I was asked if I would organise an in-service training programme which would support teachers in placements in Baranya County in southern Hungary, based in its county town of Pécs. Altogether, over the next four years, I recruited, placed, inducted, trained, inspected and advised a total of twenty-five west country teachers in a wide range of rural and semi-rural primary and secondary schools. Their initial employment in Hungary was often a complicated matter since they needed a contractual offer in order to gain a work permit, which was also dependent on their right to residence, which could only be decided upon through a series of medical tests, including one for HIV. Even children were subjected to these tests, a source of some controversy. It was just as well that they belonged to a programme which could organise these for them, especially as they had to be done in specialist clinics in Pécs, and not by local GPs in the villages where they were placed. With Hungary’s membership of the EU in 2004, most of these requirements on British and Irish nationals seem to have been dropped, but they might well be reintroduced for the former should the UK leave the EU.

Despite these initial obstacles, nearly all the Devon native-English-speaker teachers (NESTs) stayed with us for between one and three years, developing their skills in teaching EFL and broadening their cultural awareness, before returning to the west country to share the benefits of this in schools at home, though a small number have remained and settled in Hungary. They also worked closely with their Hungarian colleagues, many former teachers of Russian, covering for them in class while they attended re-training courses for teaching English at the university, and helping them to improve their own levels of English. During this time, both Stefi and I developed our professional roles as teachers of subject areas, especially history, through the medium of English. We ran a teacher-development programme in a dual-language school which examined the classroom discourse of these specialist teachers, both British and Hungarian, involved in the specialist programme. Both these were ground-breaking programmes, which continued to develop after we ourselves left in 1996, having completed the main tasks of substituting for the teachers in re-training.

1996-2004: Internationalism and Integration

We returned to the UK to work in a series of short-term posts in international schools in the west country. At this time, there was a huge influx of international students into these schools, which were struggling to cope with the impact of the lower levels of English of the incoming students, who were therefore unable to access the mainstream curriculum. We needed to provide intensive, fast-track courses in English for them, in order that they could integrate more quickly into the mainstream schools. As they were a long way from home, they also needed twenty-four hour care which we provided as houseparents. However, as Stefi was a Hungarian-qualified secondary teacher and a ‘non-native-speaker’ of English, she was continually discriminated against when she applied for teaching jobs. She therefore developed an alternative career in retail management, eventually becoming a store manager for Laura Ashley plc. It is now more difficult for schools in Britain to discriminate against ‘non-natives’, due largely to shared employment rights and standardised linguistic and professional qualifications across the EU. It wasn’t until 1998, when we moved to the Quaker School at Sidcot in Somerset that we eventually managed to combine all these roles effectively, so we delayed in having our second child, until another son eventually arrived in 2003. By this time, Stefi had been able to do some teaching, though mainly on an hourly paid one-to-one basis. Although we settled briefly into a family home in the nearby village of Winscombe, we soon found ourselves on our travels again in the late summer of 2004. This time, however, we were not returning to Hungary.

As the Cold War ended and the Hungarian people redefined their country’s place in the global community, joining NATO in 1999, it also began the process of reintegrating itself into a new, unified Europe. The road back to Europe culminated on 1 May, 2004, when Hungary joined the European Union as a full member along with Poland and the Czech Republic. As a family, we had decided not to put ourselves through the costly, bureaucratic process of acquiring each other’s nationality, since any rights which we did not already have through marriage were simply not worth it. Stefi had, since our marriage, had the right to live and work permanently in the UK, as I had in Hungary. Now we decided to live and work in a ‘neutral’ country where we would both have to learn a new language. We were offered roles as houseparents at an International School in the south of France, and moved all our possessions and our boys into a new adventure, and hopefully a new, ‘sunnier’ life together.

20o4-2011: Down but not out in Provence and East Kent

Our decision was almost as spontaneous as our decision to marry, but it didn’t bring the same lasting success. One of the reasons for this was that the French government had decided to apply derogation (to opt out) of the accession treaty requirements, so that it would not have to provide equal and unlimited access to its jobs market for potential Polish, Czech and Hungarian immigrants. Our employers told us that since they could not prove that Stefi’s role was unique and could not be done by a French national, they would have to discharge her. Since we had accepted our jobs as a couple, this made both jobs untenable. With the help of US and British colleagues, we fought this on the basis that Stefi was entitled through marriage to the same rights she had enjoyed in the UK. We won our case eventually, though we were nearly bankrupted and back in the UK by that time. One positive outcome was that our eldest son (aged 15) was fluent in French on our return, and was able to gain a place at a grammar school in Kent.

We found it wholly ironic that, having effectively been forced, however spuriously, to leave France due to its opting out from EU treaties, when we returned to the UK, we found that many Poles and Hungarians were arriving without any restrictions, to work in market-gardening, retail and hospitality. The UK government did not, by contrast, exercise its right of derogation, the very reason why it has faced such pressure over immigration during the past decade, a key issue in the referendum today. The negative impact of this core issue on the question of the UK’s membership of the EU, wherever we stand on that issue, was entirely foreseeable and avoidable. That decision was what led to the growth of UKIP, adding to the core of Euroscepticism within the Tory Party, to create the demand for a referendum, a demand which David Cameron felt he could not deny.

In 2005, it was Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, who came to our rescue as a family. The system of tax credits that he introduced gave us the breathing space we needed to get back on our feet. In Canterbury, there was plenty of hourly paid teaching and training work for English language consultants, but few full-time permanent contracts on offer in the private sector. In the state system, there was plenty of supply teaching, but few permanent jobs for someone with my experience. After working with international business people and students on short courses, I eventually found a full-time role as a teacher of English and Humanities at IGCSE and International Baccalaureate Diploma levels, and of Cambridge IELTS. Eventually, both of us got full-time permanent posts, so that we were able to pay off our tax credits. Having returned to Hungary in 2011, it worries me now that, under the new rules being considered for migrants within the EU, we would no longer have the same immediate access to the in-work benefit system were we to return to full-time residence in the UK. If the UK were to leave the EU, our position would be even worse, since we would have to join a queue of migrants, including expats seeking to return. Re-entry might no longer be an automatic right. Equally, if we choose to stay in Hungary, as a non-EU national, I might be subject to a whole barrage of medical tests and bureaucratic procedures required of such nationals at present in Hungary. My status as the spouse of a Hungarian citizen might not give me the right to work in Hungary, so I would become dependent on my wife’s income in order to prove that I was not a burden on the Hungarian tax-payer.

2016: Home Thoughts from the Other Side of Europe

Source: Népszabadság / Photo Simon Móricz-Sabján

My eldest son gained a place at the University of Warwick in 2009 to study German and French with International Relations, and our moving back to Hungary in 2011 did not affect his status as a ‘home’ student. All his costs and fees remained the same, since we were only moving within the EU. Of course, now the UK has voted to leave the EU, this will change for families in our position, as non-UK residents will have to pay the same full-cost fees as other international students, and they will have no access to the student loan system available to resident students. This will affect our second son, should he wish to attend a British University. We would need to be resident in the UK to be able to afford for him to go. In his third year, our eldest was also able to take advantage of the Erasmus Programme to live in Germany and teach English in a German school. This benefited his German-language skills enormously, as well as preparing him to teach in a mixed-ability context in a gesamschule (comprehensive).

Of course, when the UK leaves the EU, there will be no funds forthcoming from EU coffers to continue these remarkable opportunities. We were also hoping that the creation of a new university in Kecskemét, built partly with EU funds, will attract many British-based students to come and study here for a semester or two on Erasmus scholarships. All these possibilities will be wiped out by ‘Brexit’. These programmes will no longer be there to add value to the education of students from the UK. Above all, I am proud that my son has followed me into the state system in England, especially since he is a teacher of Modern Foreign Languages, sharing skills which are vital to the future success of the UK economy and to trade within the EU and the world. Now that the EU is beginning to work in these ways for the benefit of all its citizens, we cannot understand why so many of the English and Welsh have voted to throw away these opportunities for their young people. They have decided to abandon these life-changing chances in exchange for a blinkered, narrow view of Britain’s future best interests. This is why I, for one, will continue to rage against the dying of the Light.

Andrew James, April 2016.


The Language of History: Part One – Defining the Discourse   Leave a comment

The Language of History: Defining the Discourse

A ‘Preamble’ into Early Modern English:

While searching for reading material on historical discourse, I found a tract from Exeter Cathedral library, written by the antiquarian Howel in 1657, with an enchanting title; Londonopolis; an historical discourse or perlustration of the city of London… Interestingly, the verb to perlustrate means to traverse, survey… to go through and examine thoroughly (Webster’s Dictionary, 1981). The title thus reveals that the identification of the nature of historical discourse as that of surveying the past is by no means recent development. In addition, the use of ‘perlustration’ as a synonym for discourse suggests a close connection in the discipline between the need to investigate and narrate past events. These are regarded the two essential tools, or modes of discourse, to be used in the historical craft.

A British teacher researching into Dual Language Education in Budapest (Ryan: 1991) showed how a choice between these two modes resulted in what he defined as the lecture approach and the concept approach. In the first, the lesson is characterised by what Rod Ellis (1986: 176) called lockstep teaching, in which the teacher controls classroom communication through a series of elicitations of a closed kind or through lengthy informing moves and dominates quantitatively by assigning a large proportion of the talk to himself. Ryan adds that most Hungarian students expect this approach, treating history as a story told by teacher to students. In Hungary, teachers who pioneered the concept approach argued that the only way to ensure that students learnt the language of history in both Hungarian and English was to get them to talk about history. Ryan believed that it was not only possible but necessary to insert descriptive or explanatory concepts into any linear overview of a country’s history. This was precisely what happened in dual-language history teaching in Hungary in the early 1990s, resulting from a real and personalised philosophy among history teachers about their subject. Back in Exeter Cathedral library, I was interested to note how resonantly this view, one which I had also encountered in schools in Wales and more recently in France, seemed to echo that of Elizabethan writers, such as Thomas Blundervill (1574):

I can not tell whyther I may deryde, or rather pittie the great follie of those which having consumed all theyr lyfe tyme in hystories, doe knowe nothing in the ende, but the discents, genealoges, and petygrees of noble men, and when such a King or Emperour raigned, and such lyke stuffe, which knowledge though it be necessarie and meete to be observed, yet is not to be compared to the knowledge, that is, gotten by such observacions as we require, & be of greater importaunce: to the obtayning whereof, I wish all readers of Hystories, to employe theyr chiefest studie, care and diligence.

Blundervill’s second kind of knowledge, that which we might refer to today as the enquiry mode was, he considered, the essential means of enabling the reader of Hystories to gather judgement… as you may be the more able, as well to direct your private actions as to give Counsell lyke a most prudent Counsellor in publyke causes, be it matters of warre, or peace. Readers and observers of history need first to become masters and apprentices in the craft of perlustration, or investigation, to use a more familiar modern English word. By enquiring into past events, historical investigators also equip themselves to learn from such events, not simply about them.

Inter-cultural definitions: a comparative etymology

Interestingly, the Hungarian term ‘visszapillantás’, meaning an ‘historical survey or review’ (Országh, 1985), does not have the metaphorical idea of a study in depth, of a detailed survey or ‘perlustration’ going right down to the foundations of a building (Webster, 1981). It has the sense of a brief, summative overview of past events, with the prefix ‘vissza’ (back) definitely making the view a retrospective one. It does not suggest, necessarily, any connection between past, present and future.

Certainly, in its earliest uses, both in English and Hungarian, history, or ‘történelem’ (from ‘történet’, meaning ‘story’ or ‘tale’), was seen as a simple account of past events. However, the Greek root-word ‘istoria’ also had the early sense of an Inquiry (British English dated form, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, 1995). The sense of history has therefore always ranged from a ‘factual’ chronicle of past events to a narrative explanation of past events prompted by a more detailed inquiry.

Just as in Hungarian word ‘történet’ can be applied broadly to ‘fiction, fable and yarn’ (Országh, 1985), so too the English words story and history were used interchangeably to identify accounts of either imaginary events or of events supposed to be true, a usage which persists in literature and popular culture. However, from Blundervill’s time onwards, the uses of the two words diverged, with history being used to describe accounts of past real events, set down in writing, hence the use of ‘an historical discourse’ to introduce so many early modern tracts. The more generalised sense of history that Raymond Williams (1983: 146) referred to as ‘organised knowledge of the past’, was an extension of this. ‘Historian’, ‘historic’ and ‘historical’ follow mainly this generic sense, as they do in Hungarian.

This established sense of history is undoubtedly the predominant shared meaning both in English and Hungarian. However, in terms of both the discipline, or craft, and discourse, or language, of the subject, it is important to distinguish the sense of history that goes beyond a body of organised knowledge, ‘történelemtudomány’ in Hungarian (Országh, 1985) into the realms of interpretation and explanation of that shared body of knowledge. In simple terms, histories need to do more than simply chronicle or describe past events; they also need to explain them.

This sense is one that emerged with the Enlightenment and treats history as the explanation of human self-development, through a continuous process connecting past events with present and future outcomes. The various choices of interpretation within this process combine to make history a more abstract discipline than others within the Humanities. History, in this ‘modern’ sense, contains at least three competing interpretations of human development; the classic liberal interpretation of Civilisation; the philosophical (Hegelian) interpretation of a world-historical Spirit or Élan, and a more political interpretation of historic forces, originating in the French Revolution and developing with socialist, specifically Marxist political economy. Taking the last of these views first, recent rejections of all forms of historicism have also been at risk of jettisoning the more neutral method of studying the past by tracing precedents of current events. Marx himself, before the emergence of Marxism, stressed this as being part of his approach to history:

Events strikingly similar, but occurring in a different historical milieu, lead to completely dissimilar results. By studying each of these evolutions separately and then comparing them, it is easy to find the key to the understanding of the phenomenon; but it is never possible to arrive at this understanding by using the passe-partout of some historical-philosophical theory whose great virtue is to stand above history.

(Quoted in Carr, 1987: 65).

By rejecting all attempts to produce over-arching philosophies of history, much recent historiography has tended to lead to rather cynical views of past events as chapters of accidents, and tales with little significance for understanding the present. As the somewhat out-of-fashion Hungarian writer Lukács (1962, quoted in Carr, 1987: 66) pointed out, there is a danger, even in a lighter vein, of retrospectively reducing the study of history itself to ‘a collection of exotic anecdotes’. Although such anecdotes certainly have their place, often berated or underrated, in historical narrative, they do not justify its status as a major academic discipline.

A further linguistic dichotomy can be seen by looking briefly at adjectival forms connected with history as a discourse. In English, while ‘historical’ belongs mainly to language about the past, e.g. ‘historical characters’, ‘historic’ is more often used to describe present events and processes, which whilst having their origins in the past, relate more to the future within an overall sense of destiny, e.g. ‘historic forces’, ‘historic moment’ (for which we could substitute the common adjective momentous). As Raymond Williams (1976: 148) pointed out, the generic noun ‘itself retains its whole range, and still, in different hands, teaches or shows us most kinds of knowable past and almost every kind of imaginable future’.

The main point to extract from these definitions, for the purpose of doing history, is that the language of history will be more or less abstract, depending on which philosophy is applied to the subject. Whilst there are five ‘keywords’, based on the Greek root, used to define the study of the past in English – history, historiography, historic, historical, historicism – Hungarian uses at least ten key words or phrases which, through suffixation, convey more precisely the shades of meaning in the continuum from story to inquiry, and from chronicle to narrative.

However, the essential stem is still story, ‘történet’, and it is this sense of history which persists and predominates in Hungarian consciousness, the sense of an inherited shared story, often strongly linked to a notion of national heritage. This story is capable of interpretation and reinterpretation, according to current predominant political philosophy, but this, of itself, does not make it a legitimate historical inquiry or scientific survey. Making or re-making history, mythologizing or re-mythologizing it in order to make it conform to a sense of national destiny does not equate to doing history, any more than following crude historicist models enables us to do justice to the collective memory of the Hungarian people, or any other people for that matter.

The re-mythologizing of Hungary’s past is most evident to guests in the plethora of memorials that have sprung up in recent years both in its capital, and in its provincial towns such as Kecskemét, where eighty per cent of the current population lives. In the town centre, next to the Town Hall, is a memorial to the crown territories lost by Hungary as a result of the Treaty of Trianon in 1921, as a part of the Paris Peace Settlement following the First World War. It takes the form of a huge stone map, with the current geographical form of the Hungary laid over the Big Hungary, or Greater Hungary, three times the size of the present-day country. It is a map of Hungary as it never was, or as it was ‘in a way’, or as some Hungarians would like it to be. The shape of ‘Nagy Magyarország’ is for them one which they stick to the back bumper of their car. It refers to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Hungary was part of the Dual Monarchy from 1867-1918. This Hungary therefore never really existed in reality, because it never had these borders as an independent country, but only as part of an Austria-Hungary in which the Austrians were the top dogs, with the Hapsburgs as rulers.



Above: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (scale 1: 4,500,000) in c.1930

This fictional or mythological map of Hungary is based on the borders of Austria-Hungary as shown in Atlas maps, like those above, from before the First World War and after. Books published in Hungarian from the time of the Trianon onwards, refer to the Treaty as an act of betrayal, or treason. They provide examples of the language of interpretation. The maps showing the boundaries as they were before 1914 and then after Trianon show us the facts of the matter, but these facts are then subject to interpretation. Whilst it is true that Hungary lost two-thirds of its land and a third of its pre-war Magyar population, but whether it ever had a right to those areas of modern-day Croatia and other parts of the former Austrian Empire is debatable. Yet today, there are many Hungarians who still believe in a nationalist narrative that would like to see Hungarians living outside the current borders of the country returned to their native nationality and state. This brings it into continual conflict with the surrounding Slavic states about the treatment of the minority Magyars in their countries. All this is part of a modern-day nationalist narrative, based mostly on interpretations of Trianon and not always on the basic factual material, or chronicle, of the events pre-dating and surrounding the Trianon Story.

The problem arising from this approach to interpreting the events of the past is that it is the shifting sands of these interpretations, rather than the bedrock of solid evidence, which end up being set, not simply in text, but in symbolic tablets of dead stone monuments. A real historical narrative, the diamond in the rough, can only be exposed through the hard labour of chipping away at the stone which helped to form it through the pressure of real causes and catalysts, the relevance and purpose of which are not always apparent, often falling discarded in order to reveal the essential core of the gem, the narrative.

Humanistic principles and perspectives therefore apply especially to studying History, which does not have its own technical language, but does require the development of abilities to enquire into, to discuss, to debate and to narrate past events. Whilst rules of evidence and scientific objectivity have their place in guarding against the dangers of over-interpretation and mythologization of the past, an approach which becomes overly dependent on them is no more helpful than to understanding the past than the one which concentrated on facts, facts, facts, in Victorian times.

More recent philosophies of history, formed in relation to linguistics, reaffirm the usefulness of narrative tools in crafting histories, asserting as they do that stories about the past are created by historians through interpretation, rather than having a life of their own. This understanding of history as a narrative discourse with the people of the past people is of primary importance to the task of interpreting their stories, and therefore deserves further investigation.

Definitions of Discourse and The Historian’s Craft

In general modern English usage the word discourse refers to formal communication in speech or writing (Cambridge International Dictionary, 1995). In linguistic terms, it refers to ‘larger units of language such as paragraphs, conversations, and interviews’ (Richards, Platt and Platt, 1992: 111). The word can be translated by at least three words in Hungarian the noun ‘értekezés’ usually refers to a formal piece of writing on a particular, serious subject, whereas ‘eszmecsere’ refers to the semi-formal talk/ interchange of ideas, a dialogue perhaps. The noun ‘társalgás’ is used to refer to informal conversation or ‘chats’ on particular topics.

Historical discourse is characterised fundamentally by its dependence on written forms in both primary and secondary sources. In this sense, the important distinction for the historian is not to be drawn so much between spoken and written forms of discourse, but between formal ‘acts’ of narration and interpretation, whether these are conveyed in writing, in a dissertation or essay, or in speaking, through a lecture, seminar or presentation, involving dialogue and discussion. Such events clearly need distinguishing from less formal conversation and talks. In other words, we need to examine the distinctive register and style of language used in historical communication, whether spoken or written. It is in this sense that I use the term ‘historical discourse’ to indicate the use of language involved in any serious study of the past, though not necessarily only those undertaken by professional historians. Indeed, the fact that the vocabulary used is indistinct from that used in Standard English make it a craft that engages many educated individuals with the motivation to investigate the past, provided they have the right tools and know how to use them.

Dialogues between Present and Past: Historiographical debate 

Although E.H.Carr’s (1987) widely-read and therefore influential work, ‘What is History?’, was originally ‘delivered’ as a series of lectures in 1961, Carr’s work is still worth reading as a starting point for any discussion on the discourse of history, because it contains many interesting and useful insights into the relationship between history and language. His answer to his own question helps us to move towards a view of history as a distinctive discourse:

The historian is of his own age, and is bound to it by the conditions of human existence…the very words he uses – words like democracy, empire, war, revolution – have current connotations from which he cannot divorce them. Ancient historians have taken to using words like ‘polis’ and ‘plebs’…this does not help them. They, too, live in the present …the historian is obliged to choose…the use of language forbids him to be neutral… History, then, in both senses of the word – meaning both the inquiry conducted by the historian and the facts of the past into which he inquires – is a social process in which individuals are engaged as social beings. The reciprocal process of interaction between the historian and his facts…the dialogue between present and past, is a dialogue not between abstract and isolated individuals, but between the society of today and the society of yesterday.

(Carr, 1987: 24-25, 30, 55).

The idea of historical discourse as a dialogue between the historian as a contemporary social being and the society of yesterday is one which is worth pursuing, particularly in the light of Carr’s suggestion that past peoples are not simply passive objects for historians but are somehow actively engaged in metaphorical conversations with them.

More recent writers on the nature of historical discourse (White, 1978, 1987; Jenkins, 1995) have taken up this theme; at the same time criticising Carr for his advocacy of history as a social science. There are major differences in the types of language that the historian uses to approach the past from those used by a physical scientist. Lecturing on objectivity in history, Carr himself pointed to the complexity of the discourse and called for a new model of historical understanding. In the post-modern era, something approaching this new model has been worked out, based on a linguistic approach, making particular use of discourse analysis.

Towards a new model of historical discourse: The Metahistorical.

The basis for this new model can be found, originally, in the work of Hayden White (1978, 1987). A more recent survey and summary of his complex and extensive work has been made by Keith Jenkins (1995). White himself built on the work of Richard Rorty, who was concerned to bring about the collapse of boundaries between discourses and to enable them to engage in the construction of meaning and the problems of representation (Jenkins, 1995: 4). What certainly has collapsed is what Jenkins refers to as ‘history in the upper case’, the classical liberal view that we have already touched on. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig’ view of history, of which Jenkins remarks that nobody really believes that particular fantasy any more.

The new model philosophers of history point out that no discourse simply grows organically, spontaneously, without nurture or cultivation. In this case, historians cultivate their field and construct accounts of the past that can be circumscribed by the term historiography. For White, therefore, the historical work is a verbal artefact, a narrative prose discourse, the content of which is as much invented – or as much imagined – as found (Jenkins, 1995: 18-19). Consequently, all historical accounts are ultimately metaphorical and therefore metahistorical. People in the past did not deliberately live their lives as stories, so to see them in story form is to give an imaginary series of narrative structures and coherence to the past that, in reality, it never had. Therefore, we must be careful not to mistake the historian’s narrative of the past as the past’s own form; the story emerges from the historian’s interpretation of past events as recorded in texts and other traces surviving from the past.

At their most explicit, these texts and traces were consciously recorded in chronicle form e.g. in diaries. It is mainly the historian’s consciousness that transforms them into a meaningful, public narrative. In this sense, Jenkins defines the writing of history, historiography, as an act of translation, a carrying over of meanings from one discursive community to another (Ibid.: 24).

In a language-based conception of this process, the extreme textualist view would be that there is no historical reality outside that created by the historian. This view would lead to the dissolution of history as a subject since if texts are seen as reflecting other texts and not reality, historical study cannot be distinguished from literary study, and the past dissolves into literature. However, White does not go this far, arguing that:

Historical events…are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described…in some kind of natural or technical language…The description is a product of processes of linguistic condensation, displacement, symbolisation and secondary revision of the kind that inform the production of texts. On this basis alone, one is justified in speaking of history as a text…

 (White: 1989, quoted in Jenkins, 1995: 32).

This statement does not necessarily contradict other statements already examined about the nature of history; what it does is to provide a definition that serves rather than dominates the methodological purposes of the study of the past. Jenkins’ sets out the four key principles b of the textualist position as follows:

  • All accounts of the past (and the present) come to us textually through some kind of natural or technical language – we might equate ‘text’ in this sense with the historian’s use of ‘source’, whether in spoken or written discourse, or in the form of an artifact or other ‘trace’ of the past;

  • The past cannot express itself – it always needs to be spoken for and constructed. The historian distinguishes between what is historical and what is not and between what is significant, or historic, and what is not;

  • Whether history is considered simply as the past, the documentary record of this past, or the body of reliable information about the past, there is no such thing as a distinctively historical method by which to study it;

  • Historians, whether professional or otherwise, cannot define history as resting on foundations that go beyond textual reality and discourse.

(Jenkins, 1995: 34)

The historian’s sense of a dialogue with the past means that they are able to develop their historiography more in terms of its rhetorical and conversationalist style of discourse, rather than approaching their craft as a narrow academic code or discipline. This should help them to demystify the subject for their apprentices. Brenda Marshall has recently (1992) expressed this transformation in the following terms:

History in the post-modern moment becomes histories and questions. It asks: Whose history gets told? In whose name? For what purpose? … Histories forgotten, hidden, invisible, considered unimportant, changed, eradicated. It’s about the refusal to see history as linear, as leading straight up to today in some recognisable pattern – all set for us to make sense of. It’s about chance. It’s about power. It’s about information…

With this approach, teachers and learners can feel liberated to construct their own texts free from the constraints of orthodoxy and ideology, and in their own terms. Similarly, White has no time for those who define history in neat, constricting terms. He is more concerned with freeing up history to be whatever we want it to be, linked not just with views of the past, but also with visions of the future. However, when pushed, he answers Carr’s question with the answer that it is a narrative discourse, but one which can never quite grasp the past in this form. Reinstating language in the centre of the subject, as opposed to the application of rules of evidence to the historical record, he argues for a re-emphasis on the rhetorical.

(Jenkins, 1995: 140-1).

History as explanation

White’s theory of historical narrative is one which helps both the professional and apprentice historian to process the past, beginning with the relatively unprocessed historical record (archives, relics, records) in order to provide data on which a chronicle can be based and, through further interpretation, a story formed, which may finally be contextualised into a narrative. Historians work from their own narrative, prefiguring and surveying the historical field to discover the primitive elements of the historical record, which they then fashion into historical accounts. To produce an account from the primitive elements, traces or sources of the past, historians use three types of explanation:

  • Explanation by argument; making a choice between an integrative argument, seeking to integrate different aspects, through identified principles, into a macro-theoretical process, and a dispersive argument, depicting the variety and uniqueness of events;

  • Explanation by emplotment; the fashioning of a sequence of events into a narrative of a particular kind, chosen from the literary forms of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire providing the main modes which convey the myths endowing human processes with meaning;

  • Explanation by ideology; the commitment to a form of knowledge leading to generalisations about the past, chosen from conservative, liberal, radical and anarchist perspectives.

Forms of historical language

In addition, and perhaps most importantly in terms of developing a new model of historical discourse, White borrows from modern linguists and literary theorists to argue that this discourse contains four turns of phrase, or figures of speech:

  • Metaphor;

  • Metonymy; i.e. using the name of one thing to stand for that of something else with which it is associated, e.g. ‘lands belonging to the crown’ or ‘demanded action of the City Hall’.

  • Synecdoche; i.e. making the part stand for the whole (‘fifty sails’ for ‘fifty ships’), or the whole stand for the parts (creature for person).

  • Irony.

We can make use of these in our investigation into historical language by referring to them generically as figurative forms in order to distinguish them from the three forms of metalanguage, which we might summarise as follows:

  • Key historical concepts, which are widely-shared, applied broadly and sometimes controversially as a means of referring to past events, e.g. Revolution;

  • Archaisms, which are usages of language in past texts that are not usually encountered in present Standard English texts;

  • Historical terms, which are generally recognised expressions referring to events, movements etc. They were used contemporaneously and have remained in usage, e.g. Luddite (Cook: 1998).

Thus, historical discourse employs specific literary metalanguage, together with the use of key concepts, terms, and the interpretation of archaic language.

Chronicles and Narratives: Metalanguage and meaning

Exploring historical metalanguage also helps to distinguish stories and narratives from chronicles. Whilst chronicles are chronological arrangements of events and people, which may or may not follow a particular theme, in stories these events are organised into a process of happening with a beginning, middle and end. In a story, events are given a hierarchy of significance, so that the sequence of events is related to social and cultural processes, with some elements in the story receiving more emphasis than others, as in the following chart (capitals indicate significance):

Fig.   Hierarchy of significance

  1. A b c d e ……   A is the ‘explanatory factor’

  2. a B c d e ……   B ……………………………………..

  3. a b C d e ……   C ……………………………………..

  4. a b c D e ……   D ……………………………………..

  5. a b c d E ……   All facts can be seen as leading up to E                                                                                                                                                      

Present meanings and Past tenses

Thus, if historians simply recorded the facts as they found them in the traces of the past, they would merely be chroniclers. In simple linguistic terms, they would need (in English) only the past simple tense to describe a sequence of random, unrelated events, rather like in the keeping of a Journal or Diary. However, there is a distinction to be drawn between the grammar of past tenses and the semantics of the past. Historians find the simple chronicle of the past, but they provide it with the semantics; its meaning, its significance. Historians of the Dark Ages in Britain will not simply follow the order of events set out in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, nor will they accept unquestioningly the significance given to some events compared with others given by the contemporary chronicler. In changing such priorities between past chronicler and present narrator, they frequently (unconsciously or subliminally) also need to change the tense structures relating past events. For instance, in line 1 above ‘A’ may be represented by the past simple as the main explanatory factor. However, in line 2, where it is not the main explanatory factor, but is an event that occurred in previous chronological order, it might well be related to the main event through the use of the past perfect.

Figurative language and discourse

Since history has no generally accepted technical language, the historians have to use the techniques of figurative language and discourse, in which the four turns of phrase are set.   They recognise that there is a fictitious element in all-historical narrative. They are able to find in the theory of language and narrative itself the basis for a more subtle presentation of what historiography consists of than one which simply tells the apprentice historian to go away and find the facts and then write them up in such a way as to tell what really happened (White, 1978: 99).

Figuring out the chronicle into a story raises questions such as what happened next? and how did it all come about in the end? Questions such as what does it all add up to? or what’s the point of it all? have to do with the structure of the entire sequence of events considered as a completed story and call for a synopsis with other stories that might be found in the chronicle. White therefore uses a linguistic theory, the theory of tropes, to underpin his argument that history is a craft, not a science, having specific techniques but no technical terminology. Indeed, a quick survey of a dictionary of historical terms (Cook, 1998) reveals that there is no discrete lexis, syntax or grammar, as is the contrasting case with, say, Physics and Chemistry.

The historian makes the past familiar through abstract language, closely related to ordinary educated language, in which tropes are the figures of speech used to figure things out (White, 1978: 94). As in ordinary speech, for example, rhetorical questions are what the historian often starts an inquiry with, and they then dominate the ultimate narrative. In this sense, they prefigure the narrative. After all, past events cannot figure themselves out, so historians identify and describe subjects in the past, thus making them objects by their use of language. The figuring out is then done through various modes of explanation by argument, emplotment and ideology, referred to above, so that, in both senses of the word, figurative language works to relate past events to each other and to the present.

Configuring the past: some examples

Some brief contextual exemplification of these figures of speech is necessary here. The phrase ‘the saviours of humanity – the working class’ may convey the idea that the working class represents qualities of human dignity. However, the essence of humanity is not taken to be identical to the working class (synecdoche), nor is there any implicit negation of the explicit (irony). Therefore, it is a metaphorical, or representational statement. An example of metonymy would be the reduction of individual acts of resistance to colonialism as giving meaning to third world nationalism. Synecdoche is figuring out in the opposite direction, from whole to parts, e.g. ‘all history is the history of class struggle’ (Marx and Engels, 1848). In this case, each and every act of class struggle is treated as particular expressions of the general and a whole-part relationship will always be found and imposed. In irony, the statement about the working class above could be delivered or written in a certain way in order to convey the opposite of its apparent representational meaning.

Through metaphorical language, therefore, historians intervene in the past and invent history, introducing their own fictional interpretation to the arrangement of the facts. Historical problems are ones which historians both create and solve. In identifying problems, they configure the past, constituting the concepts which are used to identify and explain the evidence, itself produced from the traces of the past. A commitment to a particular mode of discourse in this process is what accounts for different interpretations of the past. The process can therefore be summarised for students in the following ten-fold sequence, modified and simplified from White (1978):

  1. The field of inquiry is located with reference to the traces of the actual past (archives, sites) and choice of period;

  2. The evidence is extracted according to an ideological interpretation which defines a question or problem in relation to it;

  3. This interpretation interacts with figurative forms of discourse, e.g. metaphor;

  4. The plot is chosen, from literary styles e.g. comedy, tragedy (emplotment);

  5. The main theme, or argument, is developed from and through the plot (explanation);

  6. The traces are worked up into a chronicle, a ‘time-line’ of events;

  7. A story form emerges which is interpretative, answering the questions set at the beginning of the inquiry;

  8. The story is transformed into a narrative, based on the evidence but related, through imaginative configuration, to both current and historic cultural forms and myths (e.g. ‘Albion – the Island Nation’, ‘Hungary – under the heel’);

  9. The narrative becomes an intelligible, consumable artifact, a secondary source;

  10. The product is itself processed, the consumers being its readers.

This approach is useful to historians and their apprentices in two ways; it assists them to think critically about accounts of past events, and it shows them how the discourse works. The emphasis on figurative language as the core of the subject helps to identify key discourse markers for further research. Moreover, the assertion that written historical texts are closely related to ‘ordinary educated speech’ lends justification to an examination of oral discourse as well as written text. However, rather than prescribing forms of historical discourse for identification, there is much to be said for the investigator following an ethnographic approach, describing past peoples and societies as much as possible in, and on, their own terms.


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