15 March 2017 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the death of Rezső Kasztner. The following post is based on Anna Porter’s 2007 book, Kasztner’s Train, and includes extensive extracts from it.
“The affair of the Judenrat (and perhaps also the Kasztner case) should, in my view, be left to the tribunal of history in the coming generation. The Jews who were safe and secure during the Hitler era ought not presume to judge their brethren who were burned and slaughtered, nor the few who survived.”
David Ben-Gurion, quoted in Weitz, The Man Who Was Murdered Twice.
Five years ago, Zsolt Zágoni published a translation of a handwritten notebook of Rózsa Stern, written in Switzerland following her escape on the train via Bergen-Belsen (1,684 people were deported on the train to the camp and from there in two groups to Switzerland – I have summarised her account of the transit elsewhere). Rózsa’s father, Samu Stern, was the President of the Hungarian Jewish Community in Budapest at the time of the Nazi occupation on 19 March, obliged to negotiate with Eichmann about the fate of the Jewish community, not just in Budapest, but throughout Hungary and the Hungarian-occupied territories. Rózsa’s notebook confirms that Rezső Kasztner encouraged Samu to leave with his daughter and her husband, György Bamberger, because if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either (if there are no Jews left in the city, there is no need for a President of the Jewish Council).
Above: The memoir written by Samu Stern in 1945 (he died on 9 June, 1946).
Stern’s photo is seen on the cover
In the accompanying historical essay, written by Krisztián Ungváry, the historian also confirms Porter’s account that in the early Summer of 1944 the Kolozsvár-born Kasztner had made a deal with the SS Commander in Budapest, Adolf Eichmann, the man sent to Hungary that Spring to complete the Final Solution. It was as a Hungarian lawyer and journalist, a leading Zionist and member of the Rescue Committee that he had been given the approval of the Jewish Council to meet with Eichmann, the Nazi architect of the Holocaust, in Budapest. Following the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March that year, Eichmann had been charged with the deportation of all six hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz within a matter of months. By the end of June, more than 440,000 had been deported from the countryside, first placed in ghettos, and then transported in cattle wagons on trains to the death camp. Yet Kasztner and his colleague Joel Brand secured Eichmann’s agreement to allow 1,684 Jews to leave for Switzerland by train. These negotiations and the deals they struck with the devil continued to haunt Kasztner for the rest of his life, and help to explain why he has never been fully honoured for his role in saving so many lives.
Dealing with the Devil:
In exchange for getting the Jews to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport military trucks through Switzerland to Germany. The wealthy Jews of Budapest and Kasztner’s native Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (now and previously Cluj in Romania) paid an average of $1,500 for each family member to be included on the lists of those who would eventually leave for Switzerland by train and emigrate to Palestine. The poor families included were to pay nothing. Kasztner also negotiated to keep twenty thousand more Hungarian Jews alive in Budapest – Eichmann called them Kasztner’s Jews or his Jews on Ice – in exchange for a deposit of approximately $100 per head. It was the right and duty of Kasztner’s Rescue Committee to decide who would get on the train that would mean survival. In order to include some of the poorest, who paid nothing, they had to select mainly wealthier, educated people and, controversially, relatives and acquaintances from Kolozsvár. Had he told even these people what would probably happen to those left behind, he would certainly have risked the success of the entire rescue mission, including the futures of the twenty thousand Jews on ice, as Eichmann called them, who would not be deported, in exchange for $100 per head. Rózsa Stern’s journal confirms that of those interned at the Aréna Street (now Dózsa György Street) Synagogue on 30 June, awaiting the departure of the Aliyah train most… were families from the countryside who were saved from the brick factories. Only about a dozen people died on the way to Switzerland, so that the survivors on the Kasztner train could consider themselves the ‘lucky’ ones.
After the war Kasztner was a witness at the trial of major war criminals and was a defence witness six times in the case of Kurt Becher in Nuremberg, the SS officer with whom Kasztner was negotiating in 1944 and who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he had ambitions for a political career in Israel, he was told that it was essential for him to clear his name, and he therefore filed a lawsuit. However, this backfired on him and although he won his libel case, the evidence presented led to the widespread public conclusion that he had sold his soul to the devil. In Israel, Kasztner’s case turned into a political scandal. The survivors whose lives were not saved by the train and whose families died in Auschwitz or on the trains and forced marches there, saw in Kasztner a mean, calculating collaborator. His alleged favouritism for family, friends and acquaintances in the selection of the ‘survivors’, together with the fact that , knowing the whole truth about the death-camp, from the so-called Auschwitz Protocols, he chose not to reveal this to the wider public, strengthened the subsequent hatred against him. In fact, those who really wanted to know what was happening to those deported had had many channels from which they could get information from as early as 1942, and had access to these since well before the Auschwitz Protocols arrived in Budapest via Bratislava. Porter’s book gives evidence that many of the Jewish leaders, including Samu Stern, did not want to give credence to what the Eichmann and the Nazis repeatedly dismissed as malicious rumours aimed at starting an uprising, which would be met with severe repression should they be repeated or publicised in any way. Certainly, it was made plain to Kasztner that any rumour-mongering would lead to the breakdown of his plans for an exodus of remaining Jews.
In Israel – Accusations of Collaboration:
In Israel, after the war, the exiled Kasztner was vilified in an infamous libel trial for ‘collaborating’ with the Nazis. As a result of the libel case, the Israeli government was forced to resign. The Israeli political right labelled their opponents as Gestapo agents and Kasztner became an obvious scapegoat. It was the first time that the general public, in Israel and elsewhere, became aware of the contacts between Zionist organisations and the Nazis and, not having experienced the terror of 1944 in the Hungary, they failed to understand the pressures which the Budapest Rescue Committee and the Jewish Council in Budapest were under, pressure which led to almost continual friction between the two organisations over tactics in dealing with the Nazis, whether at home or abroad.
In Tel Aviv, Kasztner and his whole family were subjected to appalling hate crimes. His young daughter, Zsuzsi, was stoned on the streets and his wife Bogyó became severely depressed. While awaiting the Supreme Court verdict that would eventually vindicate him, he was assassinated outside his apartment block in Tel Aviv. Kasztner did not think of himself as a hero, but as a proud Zionist who believed that promises, even those made to the Nazis, had to be kept. Anna Porter, born in Budapest and educated there after the war, has written a compelling account of him, subtitled The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust, based both on written sources in Hungarian and English, and on eyewitness accounts, collected at a time when there were few recorded references to the victims of what she (properly in my view) calls the Hungarian Holocaust. There were even fewer references to Rezső Kasztner, although the better-known Oskar Schindler, who had met Kasztner in Budapest in 1942, had written of his actions that they remained unsurpassed. Soon after the war, Schindler was recognized as a Righteous Gentile, supported by grateful survivors, celebrated and lionized. Kasztner, by contrast, became a symbol of collaboration with the enemy. Porter acknowledges that:
… the deals Kasztner made with the SS… raise questions about moral choices, courage in dangerous circumstances, the nature of compromise and collaboration, and how far an individual should go to save other people. These questions are as valid now as they were in the 1940s. They continue to haunt the world today.
Yet moral questions must be set alongside historical ones and Porter’s book, though a work of popular history, is meticulous in its use of diaries, notes, taped interviews, courtroom testimonies, and memoirs – both written and oral, including those written in German and Hebrew. Since Kasztner’s only goal was that of saving human lives, she concludes that Kasztner achieved more in this way than any other individual in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The Consequences of the Libel Trial, 1956-57; Extracts from Porter:
In March 1956, the chief magistrate in Jerusalem dismissed the charge of perjury against Kasztner… but the year presented greater trials than the re-trial of the perjury case… On October 29… the Israeli army invaded Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula. It was a pre-emptive strike at the heart of Egypt’s occupation of the Suez Canal. The invasion’s chief achievement, as far as the Israelis were concerned, was that it signaled to the surrounding Arab states that Israel could preserve its security against its enemies. Headlines in Israeli papers were occupied with news of the victory and the ensuing peace negotiations. Kasztner was no longer in the headlines. The government cancelled his protection.
He continued to work for ‘Új Kelet’ (‘New East’) and co-produced some radio programmes. He took on some freelance work as a translator… Tomy Lapid (a colleague) said that Kasztner seemed aware of his life being in danger. “He became a hunted man,” Lapid said… Kasztner now looked along the street carefully before he stepped out of a doorway; he hesitated when he turned corners; once, when a car backfired he ducked into a store; he stayed close to walls; he had seemed nervous even when government-appointed guards followed him. There were so many abusive, threatening calls that he stopped answering the phone at the office. At home, too, he disconnected the telephone. He didn’t want his wife or daughter listening to the deranged ravings about how his life was to end.
On March 3, 1957, Kasztner was working the night-shift at the editorial offices of ‘Új Kelet’. He drove a colleague… home. A few minutes after midnight, Kasztner parked his car in front of his apartment building at 6 Sderot Emanuel Street. While he was still in the driver’s seat, he was approached by two young men. A third, he saw, was standing in the shadows of the building. One of the men asked if he was “Doctor Kasztner.” When he replied that, yes, he was, the man drew a gun, but it misfired. Kasztner opened the car door, pushing his assailant aside, then ran toward the entrance of the building. The man fired, twice in quick succession. This time the bullets found their target. Kasztner ran a few more steps, then collapsed. He shouted for help as the three assailants fled. He saw the gunman run to a jeep and speed off.
He was still conscious when the first person from the building arrived at the scene and tried to administer first aid. A woman who had gone to her balcony when the shots rang out ran to wake Bogyó (Kasztner’s wife). Another man heard Kasztner say that the assailant had gone in a jeep; that neighbour jumped on his bike and gave chase. Two men emerged from the jeep near the city zoo, where their pursuer, a former army man, found a phone booth and called the police.
A crowd gathered around Kasztner. Someone had called an ambulance. Bogyó, a neighbor reported later, seemed strangely calm when she saw that Rezső had been shot. Perhaps she, too, had been expecting something like this to happen. She knelt next to her bleeding husband, put a pillow under his head, covered him with a blanket, stroked his forehead and whispered to him…
Friends and a few passengers from the Kasztner train went to the hospital with flowers. There were hundreds of telegrams with good wishes for a speedy convalescence… Newspapers that had denounced Kasztner now shouted in headlines that the attackers had aimed at the heart of the nation of Israel.
Kasztner’s room was guarded by two policemen. He was conscious but spoke little. He wished to see no visitors except his immediate family and Hansi (his Zionist colleague Joel Brand’s wife and Rezső’s long-term lover). Bogyó had intended to bar Hansi from the room, but she managed to plead her way in. At one point he asked her, “Why did they do this to me?” Hansi was with him on March 12 as his condition began to deteriorate.
On March 15, at 7:20 a.m., Rezső Kasztner died.
The Aftermath of the Assassination:
On Sunday, March 17, 1957, Rezső Kasztner’s coffin was set up in front of the Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv to provide his many admirers with an opportunity to pay their respects in public and to show their solidarity with the family. His mother, his two brothers, Bogyó, and Zsuzsi (his daughter), stood next to the coffin. Though neither David Ben-Gurion nor Mohse Sharett came, the Mapai (the ruling party) were represented by Attorney General Chaim Cohen and State Secretary Teddy Kollek. Some of his old colleagues from Budapest and Kolozsvár, and the halutzim who had worked with him paid their respects. Hansi stood near the coffin but out of Bogyó’s immediate circle. Yoel Palgi was there, as were many of the passengers from the Kasztner train. At the Bilu Synagogue, Rezső’s brother Gyula, his voice breaking as he read the words, recited the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead…
Kasztner was interred at the Nachlat Yitzhak Cemetery in Givataim, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, amid numerous declarations of friendship and tears. Most of the speakers vowed to continue the struggle not only to clear his name, but also to enshrine it among the heroes of the Holocaust. Those he had helped to survive promised to take promised to take care of his family.
‘Új Kelet’ published a moving obituary written by Ernő Márton. He praised Kasztner’s capacity for wit and erudition and his obsession with saving Jewish lives, his death-defying courage, his self-sacrifice, and his ambition to do something great, something “eternally significant for his people.”
Within days of the murder, the police arrested a twenty-four-year-old man, Zeev Eckstein, and his evidence led to the arrest of two other men, John Menkes, a former member of the Stern Gang, and Yaakov Cheruti, a lawyer. The three were tried, convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment the following January. A week later, on 15 January 1958, the Supreme Court exonerated Kasztner in a four-to-one decision. In the key matter of the original libel of his collaboration with the Nazis, the majority of the judges accepted the appeal of the attorney general and convicted Malchiel Grünwald. In the midst of the joy of vindication that followed the Supreme Court ruling, notes of doubt remained.
The Supreme Court of Israel had acquitted Kasztner of all the charges brought against him, except for the one of helping Becher escape prosecution at Nuremberg. This led to remaining doubts concerning his affidavit written on Becher’s behalf at that time, and his subsequent confused evidence in the libel case about this. In his statement about this following the initial Grünwald trial, Kastner had written:
I cannot refrain from expressing again my sorrow over the impression which may have been made in some people regarding the phrasing of my testimony about Becher, and the result of it. Neither I nor my friends have anything to hide in this whole affair, and we do not regret that we acted in accordance with our conscience, despite all that was done to us in this trial.
Several journalists continued to criticise Kasztner as having sold his soul in his deal with the Nazis. Nevertheless, the promise made by Alexander Rosenfeld at his funeral; We shall not rest, nor shall we remain silent until your name is cleared had been fulfilled by the Supreme Court’s verdict. His widow and daughter expressed their sadness that the new verdict had come too late to save his life. He had died aged just 51.
Despite the justifications of Kasztner’s role in Budapest, his fate of making friends with the devil, still divides the shrinking number of survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust of 1944-5. In 2006, István Bubryák made a three-part documentary about his life and several academic works, including Anna Porter’s book, have been published about his life. By way of postscript, an Italian book by Andrea Schiavon has also been published about one of the subsequently famous survivors on the train, Shaul Ladany. He was a member of the ill-fated Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972. When the book was published (2012), he was in his seventies and still taking part in various walking competitions (see picture below).
These accounts lend support to the evidence presented by Anna Porter, that, while human beings always have choices to make, even in the most difficult of times, there was no doubt that Kasztner acted with integrity during those months between March and December 1944, and that his actions saved many thousands of Jews from deportation to Auschwitz, not just the 1,684 who went on his train, but those who might have died on the subsequent death marches, or at the hands of the Arrow Cross. It is this very fact of survival which enables the ultimate vindication of Kasztner and the Budapest Rescue Committee.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.
Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest.
Dancing with the Devil Himself:
Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.
Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.
Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue
As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:
From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann.
Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.
On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.
On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.
On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help. It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:
The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age
This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.
Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.
The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.
The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.
A significant birthday:
While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.
Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.
There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.
By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.
Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.
On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews. The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…
…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..
But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:
The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.
Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957
Tom continues the family’s story:
By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives
Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.
My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.
One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.
My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.
For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence. Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.
Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’
Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.
Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.
By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:
Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.
Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).
1989-2006: Revolution restored?…
By the Spring of 1989, there were new men and women in the leadership of the leading Communist Party, or HSWP, who were ready to accelerate the process of change and, literally, to resurrect Imre Nagy and his legacy. BBC Correspondent, John Simpson had first met Imre Pozsgay in 1983:
He talked like an Austrian socialist. On one occasion, Kádár had referred to him as ‘impertinent’… Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time… an intellectual by instinct and training, he had worked his way up through the system, until in May 1988 he and those who thought like him in the Party were strong enough to call a special congress and vote Kádár out of power.
Kádár’s place as First Secretary was taken by Károly Grósz, and Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo, and soon the dominant ‘reformer’ in the leadership. The process of political change was speeded up and, following the appointment of an historical commission in the autumn, it was Pozsgay who announced in February 1989 that the events of 1956 had been a popular uprising rather than an attempt at counter-revolution. Although Kádár had been replaced as the leading figure, he was still a figurehead, and this still remained the most delicate subject in Hungarian politics, and the Party Central Committee did not go as far as Pozsgay. However, in June 1989, permission was given to exhume the bodies of Imre Nagy and the other ministers of the revolutionary government. Their unmarked graves had been found in waste ground. On the anniversary of his execution in 1958, 16 June, their coffins lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. The honouring of Nagy and his colleagues in this way was a turning point in the accelerating changes of 1989-90, but it was also a matter of setting straight the historical record in the public memory, since it confirmed the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the 1956 events and expunged forever, at least from the official lexicon, the ‘counter-revolutionary’ tag far more effectively than any historical commission or mere legal rehabilitation could do. In a very public way, Hungary had at last come to terms with its past, banishing the shadow of a third of a century.
However, acts of commemoration do not, of themselves, write or rewrite history. Historians do that, and they have continued to engage with the events of 1956 in the context of Hungary’s twenty-year transition into a pluralist ‘republic’ and, more recently, the advent of an authoritarian-nationalist parliamentary ‘régime’. The primacy of politics over history is evident in the continuation of widely variant interpretations of the events, especially in the past decade between the fiftieth and the sixtieth anniversaries.
János Kádár remained as a token president until his death later that summer. Though he was not involved in any major decision-making, still no-one dared to oust him. He became seriously ill, beginning with a stroke the day after he had lost power, in May 1988, though he had always been in good health before. He had become increasingly paralysed over the following year. On 12 April 1989 there was a closed meeting of the Central Committee of the Party, where the most important issues of the reforms were to be discussed. Kádár was not supposed to be there, and Grósz even asked him not to attend, but he turned up to speak, though not even able to write down what he wanted to say. He had already been questioned for months by journalists sent to him by Grósz, about his role in the events of 1956. The speech Kádár gave at the Central Committee provides evidence of his state of mind as a tortured soul. He was allowed to speak, although it was agreed that the recording would never be made public. However, it was leaked to the press, possibly by the reform wing, or by the chairman himself. The following extracts are what can be deciphered from it. Referring to the events surrounding his disappearance from the Soviet Embassy on 1 November, he commented:
… I was at once in a company where my ‘mania’ was sure not to prevail… I don’t remember how many people there were there (in the meeting with the Soviet leaders)… I misunderstood something…
What he seems to imply by this is that he misunderstood what the Soviets were asking him when they asked him if he wanted to be the First Secretary and whether he would restore order in Hungary. After all, he had just become the effective party leader after Gérő’s departure, albeit on a temporary basis. Yet, might he not have asked what ‘restoring order’ meant? Perhaps he did, but still agreed to their proposal for fear that, if he didn’t, he would end up in Siberia, not Szolnok:
Tell me, then, what was I supposed to do… when my most important aim then was to get safely to Szolnok by any possible way… no matter who surrounded me… to get there?
And I had other duties too… I assumed responsibility for those who were staying at the (Yugoslav) Embassy… But I, naive man, I assumed responsibility because I thought that my request, that two people should make a declaration, so that legally the people of their rank could not refer to it. Historically, I see everything differently now but, according to their wish at that time… The demand of those two (Nagy and Losonczy) was that they be allowed to go home freely. I couldn’t fulfil that because… /voice fades/.
At the time, Kádár allowed the events of the kidnapping of those seeking asylum in the Yugoslav Embassy to be explained as the sole responsibility of the Soviets. It was also the Soviets alone who had arranged the deportation of the group to Romania with the agreement of the Bucharest leaders, he claimed, and this was commonly believed to be the case into the 1990s. But, since then, historians have found this to be untrue, especially referring to Yugoslav evidence consisting of primary sources consisting of correspondence and official papers, referred to in earlier blogs. We also know that Kádár himself planned the deportations as well as the evidence to be presented at the trial of Imre Nagy. He had even made the political (central) committee vote for the death penalty for Nagy and the others who were executed. An outline of the trial had been made in Moscow, but the detail was added in Budapest, as in the previous Rajk trial.
Commenting on the definition of the Uprising as a ‘fascist’ counter-revolution, he had this to say in his ‘last speech’ of 1989:
If it was not a counter-revolution, I don’t know what we can refer to it as.
His ‘decision’ to refer to the events of 23-30 October as such was, it is now argued, also made largely under Soviet pressure, since they wanted to ensure that he could not turn round and characterise their ‘military assistance’ as an aggressive act of invasion when it suited him to change sides again and rejoin the revisionists. They knew that if he used the word ‘fascist’ the West, at a point so close to the second world war, would be given enough justification for non-intervention. However, it is also clear that Kádár believed in his statement made at the time, and continued to believe it in his final speech. Referencing the events taking place on the streets, especially the lynchings of 30 October, what he heard on the radio, what went on at party meetings, Kádár argued that there was no other way of referring to the entire events of that week. He also pointed out that the 1957 Central Political Committee indirectly voted for the execution of Imre Nagy and others and that (somewhat improbably) those now sitting in front of him had been participants in this decision.
In making this ‘nightmarish’ speech, flitting between his limited consciousness of both 1956 and 1989, Kádár has been likened to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The forest started walking towards him and the borderline between fantasy and reality dissolved. Nevertheless, he concluded with some cogent, if jumbled, points in his own defence:
I will answer the most immediate charge, that which torments me most… why I do not speak up. My doctor tells me that I shouldn’t make this unscripted speech. But I can’t remain passive and unable to answer. I can’t stand that, it makes me sick. And what do we remember? The platform freedom-fighters… fought with arms… I declare, at my own risk, even if I do make mistakes, I will speak out because I am a very old man with many diseases, so I don’t care if I get shot…
It is not my fault that it’s only after thirty-two years such a question has arisen, because we have had so many party congresses and meetings. Nobody ever criticised my view that the uprising became a counter-revolution… I realised it on the 28th (October) when, irrespective of clothes, skin colour, or anything else… unarmed people were killed in a pogrom… They were killed well before Imre Nagy and his friends…
By the end of May 1989, long sections of the fence along the Austrian border had been removed (supposedly for repair), and János Kádár had been relieved of all his offices. He died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated by the Supreme Court. Kádár was buried on 14 July, in a state funeral which reminded the same dramatist of the Danish courtiers standing by the coffin of Claudius, the usurper, who had reigned for thirty-three years.
Bob Dent, the British journalist and author of a book about 1956, originally written in English for the 2006 anniversary, and recently translated into Hungarian for the sixtieth commemoration, has also written his recollections of how the book was first received. Many of the journalists who requested interviews were interested to know how, as a foreigner, not even an émigré Magyar, he had dared to write about Hungary’s ‘sacred history’ of 1956. Of course, it was soon obvious that most of the journalists had not read the book! By examining and presenting conflicting versions of the same events, and by trying to give an appreciation of differing accounts of 1956, the book became a work about history itself and, by implication, about how history can be very selective and how, therefore, the past can be used for different purposes. In George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith is made to repeat the party slogan, who controls the past controls the future. Dent re-phrases this and applies it to Hungary:
Who controls the present controls the past.
When they examine the versions of 1956 which have been produced since 1988-90, historians can witness to the truth of this statement. When I was shown around Hungary in these years, one of my hosts was a Catholic priest, who looked as if he was old enough to remember the events, being at least fifteen years older than myself (I was born in 1957). When I asked him what he remembered, he told me that if I really wanted to know what life was like, I should look no further than Orwell’s great book. That was what his Catholic family had experienced, he said. Even though I had also met previously with an underground Catholic resistance group, it was difficult to envisage the level of persecution, until I read more about the events, and talked to many other participants. Then I re-read 1984, and began to understand what Stalinism meant in 1948-56. Until 1989, the people of Eastern Europe had lost control of their own future, and with it their own past. Now they had control back over both.
The official view of 1956 during the Kádár era had focused on the atrocities which took place, especially the lynchings and shootings which took place after the siege of the Party’s headquarters in Köztársaság tér on 30 October. The entire uprising became associated with those terrible events which some argued revealed the true face of the uprising. It was powerful propaganda, constantly emphasised in books and essays.
After 1989 the view became more positive and there was a tendency to play down the atrocities of 30th. In many accounts they were simply left out, as if forgotten. They didn’t fit the new image of the new republic. They muddied the waters. They had contributed towards the ‘quick’ acceptance and consolidation of the Kádár régime, not only by the Party faithful, but also by a broad cross-section of the general population as well. The problem with this approach is that it has left the field open to those who have highlighted what went on in the square for the purposes of condemning the entire uprising negatively as a ‘counter-revolution’.
Bob Dent goes on to point out that confronting the matter head-on is, of course, not easy, involving not only the issue of ‘mass violence’, but also that of revolutionary violence itself, and that of the inherent ‘hatred’ in the uprising. In 1991, a symbolic foundation stone was placed in the square referring to all the martyrs and victims of 1956. Dent, however, argues that if any kind of monument of atonement or reconciliation is ever to be raised… the difficult issues of 1956 will have to be tackled first. On the 38th anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy, President Árpád Göncz gave a speech in which he stated:
Everyone has the right to interpret 1956, but no-one has the right to expropriate 1956. Only the knowledge of the undistorted truth can mellow the one-time confrontation into peace.
The meaning of these words has still to sink in more than two decades later. Attempts to ‘expropriate’ 1956 have continued unabated, as exemplified by the different political parties and veterans’ organisations holding separate commemorations on 23 October on the fiftieth anniversary in 2006. Dent is convinced that we should all be wary when someone claims that his or her ’56 is the only ’56. He finds it strange that, following the multi-party elections of 1990, the newly elected members of parliament considered it to be their first duty to enact into law the historical significance of 1956 as an event that can only be compared with the anti-Habsburg struggle of 1848-9. Does it mean, he asks, that if someone were to compare 1956 with, say, the anti-Bolshevik Kronstadt uprising they would be breaking the law? He points out, with some justification, that the unfortunate result of the confusing variety of interpretations of 1956 is the withdrawal of interest, that I myself have witnessed, of the majority of those who were not directly involved, especially those among the unborn generations. Surveys have repeatedly shown that knowledge of, and interest in, the events of 1956, is particularly low among those having no direct experience of them.
In some respect this is surprising, given the momentous nature of those events and the fact that they involved, in the main, Hungarians fighting against fellow Hungarians. There were no major engagements with Soviet forces until the second intervention of the Red Army. This indisputable fact challenges the widely accepted, yet simplistic view that 1956 can only be understood as a struggle of the united Hungarian nation against Soviet rule. The results of a 2003 public opinion survey about attitudes to 1956 showed that sixteen per cent of respondents still held the view that the events constituted a ‘counter-revolution’, the official view of the Kádár régime, fourteen years after it was discredited. Of the other 84%, 53% were content with the term ‘revolution’, while 14% preferred the term ‘people’s uprising’ and 13% saw it as a ‘freedom struggle’. On the issue of terminology, Dent concludes that the 1956 events constituted a ‘counter-revolution’ in the Kádár era due to:
…the destruction of communist symbols and attacks on party buildings, the ‘fascist’ atrocities which took place, and the belief that the underlying orientation of the events was towards a restoration of capitalist relations of production.
None of these, in his view, can be substantiated sufficiently to warrant the label being applied overall. Though red stars and hammers and sickles were torn down from buildings and cut out from national flags and banners, many Party members participated in the events, from the rank and file among the street fighters to the workers’ councils, often neglected by recent historians, to Imre Nagy and his government ministers and generals. The attacks on the Party were attacks on its monopolies and methods, not on the basic concepts of socialism and workers’ control of the means of production. It is understandable, however, that some in the Party leadership thought that this was the case since, in line with Leninist precepts, they thought that the Party had to uphold its power as the leading representative of working class interests. Even the leaders of other parties involved in the short-lived Nagy government, like Béla Kovács, of the Smallholders’ Party, warned their supporters against any idea of a restoration of landowners and capitalists:
No-one should dream of going back to the world of aristocrats, bankers and capitalists. That world is definitely gone!
These words of Kovács, appointed minister of agriculture by Nagy, were echoed in countless proclamations issued at the time, most notably by the workers’ councils. The factory is ours and should remain so under workers’ management was a common theme. The irony here is that, although the revolutionary element in the events of October-December 1956 was best represented in many district, town and village councils, and most notably by workers’ councils, it is exactly these councils which have been ignored in the recent re-writing of the history of the uprising and resistance to Soviet control of these months. For instance, The Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents, edited by Csaba Békés et. al. (2002), contains 118 documents, not one of which is a workers’ council document, probably because the editors were primarily concerned with the issues of Hungarian national-level politics and the country’s international relations.
Interestingly, one public figure who did highlight the theme on a number of occasions before his death in 2014 was Árpád Göncz, an activist in 1956, subsequently imprisoned before becoming President in 1990. During his ten-year presidency, Göncz highlighted the role of the workers’ councils on a number of occasions. In his 1992 speech for the 36th anniversary, he included the following perceptive words:
The multi-party parliamentary system of western Europe hardly tolerates the type of direct democracy which made our revolution victorious via the directly elected workers’ and revolutionary councils controlled by workplace and residential communities.
The speech was not fully given, as Göncz was interrupted on 23 October by noisy right-wing demonstrators. As a result, however, the content of the speech was widely published in the Hungarian press, and later in a collection (by Európa Press).
Even after leaving office, Göncz continued to speak and write about the contribution the workers made through their councils, claiming that their role was ‘decisive’, adding that the demand for workers’ ownership had actually been achieved in October 1956. In an interview for Népszava on 22 October 2004, he described the formation of the workers’ councils as one of the most important steps of the revolution. For other post-1989 public figures, as well as for recent historians in Hungary and elsewhere, the paradoxical notion of the councils as ‘anti-Soviet soviets’ has been difficult to digest, so that the tendency has been to ignore them.
Dent and others have tended to avoid the issue of definition of the events of 1956 by using the contemporary English language label ‘Uprising’, which is how it was referred to in the international press and at the UN. When it became the official definition of the Party in 1989, however, as a ‘people’s uprising’, Dent coined a new term, ‘social explosion’ to describe the events. Unfortunately, the vagueness of the term means that it adds very little value to the coinage of historians, even if it helps, temporarily at least, to avoid political labelling. Progressive Hungarians, including exiles, have always referred to it by the same word used for the other ‘revolutions’ in Hungarian history (1848, 1918), forradalom. This is where I believe it belongs.
In his useful book, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976; 1988, Fontana), Raymond Williams established two key concepts related to Revolution. The first, the seventeenth-century concept, was that of the image of the wheel turning, to emphasise the turning upside-down of an established political order. The second, developing out of the revolutions of 1789-1848, was the sense of the…
… bringing about a wholly new social order… greatly strengthened by the socialist movement, and this led to some complexity in the distinction between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism. From one point of view the distinction was between violent overthrow of the old order and peaceful and constitutional change. From another point of view, which is at least equally valid, the distinction was between working for a wholly new social order… and the more limited modification or reform of an existing order. The argument about means, which has often been used to specialize revolution, is also usually an argument about ends… one of the crucial senses of the word, early and late, restorative or innovative, had been simply (to indicate) important or fundamental change.
Interestingly, Williams does not include a reference to ‘counter-revolution’ (ellenforradalom in Hungarian), suggesting that it was purely a Stalinist construct and not one, as a Marxist himself, he considered important to include even in the definition of the main word. He does, however, include a definition of reactionary as an antonym of revolutionary since the nineteenth century. From these definitions, I believe that, from a historical perspective, it should not be so difficult to interpret the events of October 1956 as a revolution, and the reactionary measures of November-December, taken by the Soviets and its Kádár régime in Hungary, as a counter-revolution leading to the restoration of a communist dictatorship, albeit in an ultimately more benign form.
During the fiftieth anniversary of 2006, quite predictably, politicians and public figures made selective use of the collective memory of 1956 to bolster their positions and attack those of their opponents. One idea which re-emerged involved the notion that the changes of 1989-90 were the eventual realisation of the ideals of 1956. Dent challenges this view by arguing that 1989 involved elements which had not been present in 1956. What made the events of 1956 truly revolutionary was the coral growth of factory-based workers’ councils and locally based revolutionary committees all over the country. The first workers’ council to appear was established in Diósgyor, in the industrial northeast, on 22 October, the eve of the beginning of events in the capital, and the last to dissolve (itself) was at Csepel on 11 January 1957. As Göncz commented, these bodies represented a form of direct democracy which was different from both the western parliamentary systems and the centralised, monolithic system modelled by the USSR and imposed on its satellite states. This was also, above all, was what represented a new order and fashioned the events of 1956-57 into a revolution.
As an undergraduate, I remember reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and especially her writing on the Kronstadt Uprising and the Hungarian Revolution. She described how workers’ councils, wherever they have appeared in history,
… were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies and their leaders from right to left, and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists.
Demands for privatisation and the development of a free-market economy in 1989-90 went far beyond the demands of 1956, which were for workers’ control and ownership. Neither were the demands for a re-orientation of the country as a central European state in 1956, looking both east and west, in any way comparable with the interest in joining the European Economic Community, not even ‘born’ then. The demand for neutrality in 1956 was also a long way from envisaging future membership of NATO, though the crushing of the early bid for independence did motivate Hungarian leaders to move quickly towards full membership in the 1990s. Despite this, their aim was not achieved until 1999. The attempts to ‘merge’ past and present are well-expressed in these photos…
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa.
Bob Dent (2008), Inside Hungary from Outside. Budapest: Európa; especially chapter nine, My Very Own 1956.
John Simpson (1990), Despatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.
John Simpson (1998), Strange Places, Questionable People. London: Macmillan.
Margaret Rooke (1986), The Hungarian Revolt of 1956 – János Kádár: traitor or saviour. London: Longman.
Part One, 1-9 December – Fleeing the Homeland
Revolutionary Sportsmen and their families…
The famous footballers of Honvéd Budapest had left Hungary on 1 November, just before the second Soviet intervention, in order to prepare for their European Cup match against Athletico Bilbao. After the invasion, the players suddenly found themselves cut off from their homeland and their families, but, accompanied by the solidarity and compassion of their western European hosts, they played matches for charity and to cover their expenses. They donned black armbands and cut the red-starred Honvéd badge from their shirts.
The players did everything they could to get their families out of the country from behind the even more strictly controlled border fences of their homeland. Puskás’ wife and their four-year-old daughter, Anikó, had managed to cross into Austria on 1 December, making their way through muddy, ploughed fields, in the cold, wet night. Anikó had been told when they set off that they were going to visit relatives in Dunaföldvár, on the western bank of the Danube, some forty kilometres south of Budapest. She slept most of the way, carried for part of it by a young man, Tamás Csonka.
The family was reunited in Milan, receiving the attention of the world’s press. They spent Christmas together in the team’s hotel, together with the other players and the relatives who had managed to escape. Eventually Puskás, emboldened by his wife, along with Zoltán Czibor, who had taken part in the Uprising and was elected as the Honved sports’ club’s Revolutionary Committee, Sándor Kocsis, coach Jenő Kalmár, and technical director Emil Öestreicher, all chose to remain in the west, despite the pleading of Gusztáv Sebes, the Hungarian national team coach, as well as thinly-veiled threats from the Kádár regime.
Meanwhile, at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, Hungary’s highly successful water-polo team, who had also left the country just before the Soviet invasion, defeated the USSR team 4-0 in what became known as the Blood in the Water match, played on 6 December. After winning the gold medal, defeating the Yugoslav team, some of their star players also decided to defect and settle for a life in exile.
Tom Leimdorfer, on a Geography school trip in the Bakony Hills, September 1956
In these highly sensitive times for the Soviets and their puppet régime in Budapest, it was natural for those who chose to leave to be very cautious and only let their closest family know. Arrests had already begun, and many of those caught fleeing were among those detained. Edit Leimdorfer told her sister-in-law Juci, but they did not go to say goodbye to them or anyone else. There were still army checkpoints across the city, so that only essential trips were made.
Above: The Leimdörfer family: Grandparents, Aunt Juci, his father and his mother, Edit.
On Friday, the 7th of December, Tom and his mother went back to their flat. Everything had to be done so as not to arouse suspicion from neighbours. They packed essential clothing in a rucksack each with just a few treasured possessions. In Tom’s case, this included a few photographs of family and friends, including that of his girlfriend Kati, whom he had known for three years:
My last piano teacher lived on Rózsa Domb (Rose Hill), some distance from our flat. I needed to take a tram and then a bus to get there, but by the age of eleven I travelled independently all over the city. This teacher was recommended by my mother’s colleague, István. He and his wife Katalin were friends of my mother’s and I was getting increasingly attracted to their very talented daughter Kati, who was a year younger than me. We visited them at their lovely flat in the Buda hills, with great views of János Hegy (John peak) across the valley. The flat had a balcony and a steep hillside garden with steps and paths leading round shrubs and rockeries. Wonderful for hide and seek.
Kati was very musical and well ahead of me on the piano, in spite of being younger. It was her teacher who took me on and my weekly lesson usually followed hers. I made sure I was early and waited outside, so I could snatch a brief few moments alone with Kati. I was not yet a teenager, but I was definitely in love. I thought of Kati as embodying perfection in a girl and unattainable for mere mortal boys like me. Her parents were far better off than my mother and I always felt I had to be on my very best and formal behaviour when we visited their spotless and beautiful flat. Besides, the family were Catholics and such religious divides mattered, communism or no communism.
Their budding childhood relationship had been dealt a further blow when Edit Leimdörfer decided that they should move to the much smaller flat in Pest, a lot further away on the opposite side of the Danube, from where they were now escaping Hungary. Shortly before the October Revolution in the capital, the parents of the ‘couple’ had found an ingenious way of bringing the young lovers together again:
The piano had to be sold and my piano lessons ceased. With it went my weekly rendezvous with Kati and I barely saw her during the first nine months of 1956. This did not diminish my longing and teenage fantasies. One day in September 1956, my mother gave me an envelope with a mysterious smile as an ‘early 14th birthday present’. When I opened it, two season tickets to the opera dropped out. I was very pleased and asked her when we were going to the first performance. ‘Oh, you are not going with me’ she said. ‘Then who is the other ticket for?’ I enquired. ‘Well, who would you really like to take instead of me?’ she teased. I was both delighted and astounded. ‘But did Pista bácsi agree?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it was his idea’, my mother answered. This really surprised me. I knew Kati’s mother doted on me, but I thought her father would be protective and not regard me as altogether suitable… Kati and I talked excitedly on the phone about our forthcoming first date.
We arranged to meet on the day at the terminus of the old underground by the statue of the poet Vörösmarthy and travel together to the opera. We were both very smartly dressed and Kati looked stunning. I remember little of the performance itself, which was the Hungarian epic opera ‘Hunyadi László’, by Erkel. This time, the interval was more important, getting Kati her drink and impressing her with my attentions. Afterwards, we walked slowly hand in hand towards the underground station. To my disappointment, Mami and Kati’s parents were waiting there, having had a meal out in a nearby restaurant. That was just two weeks before the fateful day of the October revolution. The next time I saw Kati was sixteen and a half years later. We were both married, introducing our spouses to each other and watching our children play in the garden where we had played as young children.
Little over a month later, back in the city centre flat with his mother, Tom had to leave his now useless season ticket and settle for collecting the other things which could be packed in his rucksack. These included a pocket chess set and his button football team. Not being allowed to phone Kati made him feel miserable. He knew she would be fine, as they lived up in the Buda hills where there was no fighting, but guessed that she would be worried about them. It was a strange day, but he could not feel sentimental about leaving the flat as it never really felt like home. His real childhood home was the flat in Buda with the garden which he had been so sad to leave the year before. Now it was his desk, originally belonging to his father (killed on the Russian front during World War II), to which he bade a regretful farewell:
The beautiful green baize surface, which was the scene of button football triumphs and the backdrop to long hours of homework, the lovely inlaid marquetry patterns, all remained imprinted in my memory. The painful thought of leaving family and friends was pushed well into the subconscious as we prepared for our big adventure.
In the early hours of the 8th December, Gyuri, Ferkó and Marika rang the bell of the flat and they all met by the front door. It was still dark as they walked by the least conspicuous route to the railway station, hardly saying a word to each other. They had a rucksack each, looking as if they were going for a brief outing. Walking past piles of rubble, burnt-out lorries, broken power tram lines, shell holes in apartment blocks, some blocks totally in ruins, they could see for the first time the full extent of the damage in the war-torn, grey, sad, defeated city. It made sense to them then that they were leaving that scene.
The train was packed with similar ‘holiday makers’ all favouring unlikely resorts near the Austrian border, all eyeing each other curiously but not communicating. They had no idea if there were plainclothes police or ÁVH agents amongst us. Everyone watched the countryside rushing by the windows, all with memories of a homeland they were leaving behind, with hopes and fears of what lay ahead. The five got off the train before most of the others and joined what seemed to Tom to be a pre-arranged group:
I assumed this was the arrangement made by Mami through contacts. Apart from the five of us, there was a distant relative of ours in the same group. We were met by someone with a lorry and got on the back. Sandwiches were eaten en route and we arrived at some railway sidings, by a village near the border. There we waited for a while, then our ‘guide’ appeared and we followed him. Within minutes, we were faced with a small detachment of border police who asked for our documents. As I glanced round, I saw our ‘guide’ disappear under a stationary goods wagon and run as fast as his legs could carry him. None of the border guards bothered to run after him. We were summarily arrested.
The next few hours were like something out of a Kafka novel. The Hungarian border guards marched us to their base and took our details. They had clearly no real enthusiasm for what they were doing, but the new orders were to arrest people trying to flee, so they went through the motions. We were all interrogated separately. I was asked how many Russian tanks I blew up with Molotov cocktails. The guard seemed disappointed when I answered truthfully that I did no fighting. Many young teenagers did. Then a dozen or so Russian soldiers turned up and asked the Hungarian border guards if we were the refugees who stole their lorry. The border guards pretended to speak no Russian, so Ferkó was asked to translate. No, we affirmed, we did not steal their lorry. So the Russians left, with much shrugging of shoulders on the part of the Hungarian border guards. It was getting late and we were starving.
There certainly were many among the escapees who had been involved in attacking tanks, both in Budapest and the provincial towns, some of whom had actually killed Soviet soldiers and were unable to return to Hungary until the 1990s when a full amnesty was declared. With these Russians gone, however, Tom’s mother sprung into action again. She produced her (quite useless) documentation for the Hungarian officer, showing that they were going for a holiday as a respite from the trauma of recent events. Yes, they did join the refugee group once they were nearing the border, but this was an impulsive action they soon regretted. The children were tired and bewildered, she said, as they just expected to go on holiday. Would the officer allow them to seek to lodge for the night with someone in the village? They would report promptly in the morning to be transported back to Budapest under arrest. Edit Leimdörfer was at her most persuasive and the officer agreed, even suggesting which house they could try for a night’s lodgings.
Guests, a Guide and his Grenades…
The middle-aged couple who offered them refuge and hospitality were getting ready for bed when the family of five knocked on the door and explained their situation. They immediately rushed about getting food, getting spare beds ready and mattresses on the floor with duvets. Then the peasant-farmer started talking to Edit and Gyuri:
Surely, we were not going to give up our plans? “Oh yes”, we said, our attempt had failed and we would go back home. The man looked at us in earnest: “Is that really what you want to do?” He knew the border like the back of his hands. He ploughed the fields and had special permission to go right up to the fences. He could safely get us through before dawn. Mami and Gyuri hesitated, perhaps wondering if the man was an agent provocateur, but he looked like an honest peasant farmer, who would have had no interest in tricking us. By why would he take the risk? Mami explained that she had already given her money to the ‘guide’ who led us straight into the hands of the border guards. The best she could do was to give him an address in Budapest and a letter where he would get financial compensation if we were successful. The adults looked at us, Ferkó nodded in agreement, so did Marika and I, although we were too exhausted to care.
After no more than three hours’ sleep in their clothes, they were woken at 3.00 am on the Sunday morning of the 9th December. The wife hurriedly gave them some bread and milk before they set off:
It was a cold, clear night. The crescent moon had set already and the sky was bedecked with countless stars, the full glory of the Milky Way high and bright above us. All was still and we were very conscious of the noise of our footsteps. The man, in his late forties or early fifties, gave us brief military type instructions. The only lights visible apart from the stars were rotating searchlights of the border guards’ observation towers and we were making for a spot roughly halfway between two of these. We were crossing a plain with no trees, no shelter. Once my eyes got used to the dark, I felt very conspicuous and wondered why we could not be seen from the towers. We were walking through what had been a field of maize and there was enough stubble left for cover if we lay flat on the ground. As we reached the area within reach of the searchlight beams, the man gave precise commands to ‘lie down’ as the beam neared us and ‘walk on’ as it passed. Then at one point he said ‘stay down, stay still’ and we did just that till he said ‘walk on’ again. We reached the first set of wires without seeing them ahead of us. They were not formidable and there was a point where they had been cut and we could get through. The second set of barbed wires, a few meters on looked more difficult, but the man found a place where the bottom strand was missing so we could pass our rucksacks through and then crawl underneath. Even that did not seem as formidable an ‘iron curtain’ as the high electrified wire installation I was to witness being dismantled in May 1989 about thirty miles from where we were crawling to freedom that night.
The farmer warned them that they were not yet safe as the wires were well inside the actual border with Austria. They needed to walk towards what they had just started to make out was a line of trees. He told them to look carefully where they trod. Their flight and that of tens of thousands of others was only made possible by the de-mining of the border region as a goodwill gesture to neutral Austria earlier in the year, but they could not be sure that there were not still some active mines left in the ground. Tom could not resist the occasional glance upwards into the night sky:
All this time, none of us spoke. I felt a sense of danger, of course, mixed with a feeling of excitement at the adventure and pure wonder at the glorious firmament above, the sight of which has stayed with me all my life.
As we approached the lines of trees and bushes, it was clear that we were getting to a river bank. Suddenly, there was a shout of ‘Halt!’ and we froze until it was followed by a milder sounding: ‘Achtung, hier entlang’ (or something like it) as two young Austrian guards emerged to direct us towards a crossing point. Gyuri started to talk to them in his fluent German. It was time to express our immense gratitude to our guide, which he tried to shrug off. My mother gave him the letter with the address to visit in Budapest for his reward. She then said: “It was not as dangerous as I feared”. The man replied: “Did you not see the border guards passing when I asked you lie still on the ground?” None of us had. Then he said: “But I was prepared anyway” and he took two hand grenades out of his pockets. Even in the dark I thought I saw Mami go pale and a shiver went down my spine. Still, we had to concentrate on crossing the wide stream by balancing on the makeshift planks and tree-trunks, helped across by the two Austrian guards. We clambered on to the back of an army jeep waiting nearby. We made it. We were safe. We were refugees.
Asylum in Austria…
It was a short ride to the village of Andau where they were deposited outside a large hall. It was teeming with refugees, all of them new arrivals awaiting transportation to one of the large transit camps set up for Hungarian refugees under the auspices of the United Nations. An official took our details. ‘Gyuri bácsi’ was now in charge of the situation as he not only spoke totally fluent German (Edit’s was almost fluent, but less confident), but he also had some friends and a pre-war business partner living in Vienna. So, he explained, we only needed shelter till they could collect us.
Meanwhile, they were given a drink and some chocolate and a place on the floor to sleep. It was around six o’clock in the morning, but still dark. They were utterly drained and exhausted, sleeping on blankets on the hard floor until about ten in spite of people milling around in the noisy hall. There was some food on a long table for breakfast and a chance for a quick wash. Gyuri said his former business partner was very pleased to hear from him and was on his way down from Vienna to collect them:
We hardly had time to take in fully the scene of the motley, fairly bedraggled crowd of Hungarian refugees of which we were a part for just six hours. At midday, we went outside the hall in the bright sunshine of the village square. I remember the church bells ringing and villagers in local traditional rural Sunday best clothes standing around. They did not look any different from a Hungarian village over the border. Affluence had not yet reached rural Austria.
Then the heads of several people turned towards the road leading to the square and we saw a large black Cadillac approach. When it stopped, a portly man emerged and greeted Gyuri as a long-lost friend. I saw several villagers staring with open mouths as these refugees with their rucksacks piled into that luxury car and were driven off towards the capital. A few kind questions were addressed to us in Hungarian, before the conversation switched to German. Ferkó listened with interest, while Marika and I just watched the countryside go by. Actually, in many ways Marika was the real the real hero of this adventure. She was not yet twelve years of age, but she showed no fear, no tears, no complaints throughout those extraordinary couple of days.
(to be continued).
Gzörgy Szöllősi (2015), Ferenc Puskás, The Most Famous Hungarian. Budapest: Rézbong Kiadó.
Links and Exchanges
In the late autumn/ fall of 1991, with the Cold War coming to an end, Americans, Hungarians and other Europeans became urgently and actively engaged in redefining their relationships in this new era. As a British teacher from Coventry living and working in its twin town of Kecskemét in Hungary, married to its citizens, I continued to re-establish links which had lain dormant since the Hungary’s involvement in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, especially through educational exchanges, organised through the Hungarian Ministry of Education and the (then) European Community ‘s Tempus Programme. Besides the Peace Corps volunteers who continued to arrive to all parts of the country, the United States and Hungary had established a joint commission for educational exchange, which included a Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission. Again, Fulbright scholars began arriving in a variety of Hungarian towns that autumn, placed in schools and colleges, and Hungarian teachers were able to travel to the USA in exchange.
In October 1991, Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall made a ‘private’ visit to Washington. Just over a year earlier, Antall had been sworn in as PM of the first freely elected Hungarian Parliament since that of 1945. In his first address, he had pointed out that…
… the new government will be a European government, and not only in the geographical sense of the word. We stand for the tradition of democracy, pluralism and openness. We want to return to the European heritage but, at the same time , also to those values that Europe has created in the course of the past forty years, in the wake of the terrible lessons and experience of World War II.
At the Washington ‘summit’, President George Bush reiterated the US commitment to the economic and political transformation of Hungary, particularly in view of the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union. Antall also expressed concern about the civil war in Yugoslavia which was just beginning at that time. At their meeting in Krakow on 6 October, the Foreign Ministers of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, issued a joint statement on their wish to become involved in NATO activities. On 1 July, the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded by the Protocol of Prague, which had annulled the 1955 Treaty (Hungary’s Parliament passed the Act ratifying this on 18 July) and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary had been completed in June. COMECON, the economic organisation of what was now a collapsing empire was also being disbanded. Parallel to that, Hungary had started the process of catching up with the community of developed Western democracies. Already, by the end of 1991, the country had concluded an Association Agreement with the European Community.
Along with the Czech Republic and Poland, Hungary was among the first countries of Central and Eastern Europe invited to start talks on NATO accession. The invitation showed that Hungary was taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by the social and political changes of 1989-91 and that, having regained the sovereignty it had last lost in November 1956, it had made the right decision on its security policy goals and how to achieve them. Neutrality was no longer an option. A consensus was emerging among the parties represented in the new Parliament on the well-known triple set of goals… Euro-Atlantic integration, development of good-neighbourly relations and support for the interests of Hungarian communities living abroad. These remained valid throughout the following decade and into the twenty-first century.
In another sign of its growing international integration, on 20-21 October, at the plenary meeting of North Atlantic Assembly in Madrid, Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Wörner announced that it would hold its 1995 session in Budapest. Hungary was represented by Foreign Minister, Géza Jeszenszky and Tamás Wachsler, a FIDESZ Member of Parliament, both of whom gave presentations. The Madrid summit constituted a historic moment in the redefinition of the security roles of European institutions at a time when global and regional changes, and the democratic developments in the central-eastern European states reached a point which coincided with the interests of both the major Western powers and the southern European states. Through its (then) comparatively advanced democratic development and previous historical experience, Hungary was seen as well-suited to figure among the states to be included in the first wave of NATO enlargement. Such experience stemmed, most importantly, from the Revolution of 1956 and its struggle for sovereignty and neutrality, as well as from the initiatives it had taken from within the Warsaw Pact and the UN in the 1980s. A week after Madrid (see picture above), PM Antall visited NATO Headquarters in Brussels, where he addressed the North Atlantic Council, expressing the wish of the Hungarian Government to establish closer cooperation with NATO, including the creation of an institutionalised consultation and information system.
On 30 October, at the invitation of the Minister of Defence, Lajos Für, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General John Galvin, visited Hungary and met József Antall. A week later (7-8 November), a summit meeting of the North Atlantic Council was held in Rome at which the Heads of State/ Government approved the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept which supported the efforts of the central-eastern European countries towards reforms and offered participation in the relevant forums of the Alliance. On this, they issued the Rome Declaration on Peace and Cooperation:
We have consistently encouraged the development of democracy in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We therefore applaud the commitment of these countries to political and economic reform following the rejection of totalitarian communist rule by their peoples. We salute the newly recovered independence of the Baltic States. We will support all steps in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe towards reform and will give practical assistance to help them succeed in this difficult transition. This is based on our own conviction that our own security is inseparably linked to that of all other states in Europe…
Wishing to enhance its contribution to the emergence of a Europe whole and free, our Alliance at its London summit extended to the Central and Eastern European countries the hand of friendship and established regular diplomatic liaison. Together we signed the Paris Joint Declaration… Our extensive programme of high level visits, exchanges of views on security and other related issues, intensified military contacts, and exchanges of expertise in various fields has demonstrated its value and contributed greatly towards building a new relationship between NATO and these countries. This is a dynamic process: the growth of democratic institutions throughout central and eastern Europe and encouraging cooperative experiences, as well as the desire of these countries for closer ties, now call for our relations to be broadened, intensified and raised to a qualitatively new level…
Therefore, as the next step, we intend to develop a more institutional relationship of consultation and cooperation on political and security issues.
The NATO summit in Rome was one of the most significant international consultations to take place as to how to deal with these new security threats. The heads of state identified the goals and tasks to be achieved and to be realistically achievable by the Western European organisations over the following four to five years, as well as the mechanisms which would be required to fulfill them.
Hungary & The End of a Bipolar World
While this summit meeting was taking place, the de facto collapse of the so-called socialist word order was proceeding apace. These new processes within NATO were manifested mainly by the young democracies of central-eastern Europe that had just regained their independence from the USSR and its now defunct Warsaw Pact. However, they were also informed by global developments, such as the impact of the Gulf War and its lessons and conclusions. The dissolution of the bipolar world order was not simply related to the collapse of the USSR, but to threats to security originating in ethnicity-based conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans.
The renewed Republic of Hungary found itself in a unique situation, since with the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the east of it, and the break-up of both the Yugoslav Socialist Republic and Czechoslovakia on its southern and northern borders, it suddenly found itself with seven neighbours rather than five. From the spring of 1991, along a borderline of 600 kilometres, the crisis in the former Yugoslavia had a considerable impact on Hungary’s legislators and executive authorities at a time when it had just embarked on the path of civilian democratic development. The armed clashes, which became more violent and intense from July onwards, were taking place were predominantly along the Hungarian border and there were incidents across the border of lesser or greater scale, the most serious of which was the bomb which fell (accidentally and without exploding) on the large village of Barcs on Hungarian territory. Trade also became affected by border closures which were necessary to prevent gun-running to the militias, and thousands of refugees escaped the violence into Hungary. There was an emerging consensus among the Hungarian political élite that the only possibility of breaking away from the nightmare scenario of a disintegrating central-eastern European region was through accession to the integrating West. The reunification of Germany, although it could not serve as a model, proved that the institutional anchoring of a former COMECON and Warsaw Pact country was possible.
The Republic of Hungary concluded that its geopolitical situation had changed completely, and a process took place within NATO to realise Euro-Atlantic integration in the region through NATO enlargement. In this process, the Hungarian defence forces earned worldwide recognition and the government of the Republic succeeded in fulfilling its strategic foreign policy objectives while in domestic policy, it established the conditions for stable and democratic development. Naturally, this took a full term of government to achieve, but the fact that the process began in the crucible which was the end of the Cold War, when states were collapsing on almost every border, is a truly remarkable tribute to the transition government in Hungary.
Demise of Gorbachev & the Soviet Union
In the aftermath of the failed coup in August, the Soviet republics voted to reject Gorbachev’s Union Treaty; the new state would be a confederation. On 30 November, Yeltsin’s Russia, the leading power in the new association, took control of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and of all its embassies abroad. In Minsk on 8 December, Yeltsin for Russia, Leonid Kravchuk for Ukraine, and Stanislaw Shushkevich for Belarus, the three Slav states, without bothering to take the other republics with them, signed a pact ending the USSR and creating instead the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). By telephone they told first George Bush, then Mikhail Gorbachev, what they had done. Gorbachev, humiliated, next day denied their right to have done it; but the Russian parliament ratified the commonwealth agreement, and within days all but one of the other republics joined.
In Moscow a week later, James Baker saw both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, and had it brought to his attention that the Soviet military was now backing Yeltsin and the CIS. Gorbachev accepted this as a fait accompli, announcing that all central structures of the Soviet Union would cease to exist at the end of the year. The four republics in possession of nuclear weapons – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – announced that they would abide by and implement the cuts in arms and nuclear weapons agreed to by Bush and Gorbachev.
Meanwhile, both the CIS and the Russian government proved incapable of coping with the crisis in southern Russia. The United Nations, the European Community, the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe were, to begin with, equally ineffective in dealing with the conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, it became obvious that the UN was unable to create the mechanisms needed to handle these conflicts and to bring the political and military conflicts to a solution. This led on to the question as to what NATO’s responsibilities could be in response to the new risk factors of regional character that were emerging in the early 1990s.
On 19 December, the Foreign Ministers of the newly independent Central and Eastern European states met in Brussels, together with those of the full member states of NATO. Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky again represented Hungary. The Soviet Union was also invited, and its name appears on the final communiqué issued by the North Atlantic Council. The purpose of the meeting, as decided at the Rome summit, was to issue a joint political declaration to launch this new era of partnership and to define further the modalities and content of this process. The following day, 20 December, the inaugural meeting of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) was attended by representatives of the sixteen full NATO members and the nine central-eastern European nations. It was established to integrate them into the Alliance:
Our consultations and cooperation will focus on security and related issues where Allies can offer their experience and expertise. They are designed to aid in fostering a sense of security and confidence among these countries and to help them transform their societies and economies, making democratic change irreversible.
… We welcome the continuing progress towards democratic pluralism, respect for human rights and market economies. We encourage these nations to continue their reforms and contribute to… arms control agreements.
Just five days later, On 25 December 1991, Christmas Day in central-western Europe, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist. The Red Flag, with its golden hammer and sickle, prophesying a worldwide workers’ revolution that never came, was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. For Gorbachev this was an unintended consequence of the reform process, perestroika, that he had started. He retired from public life, since he no longer had an office from which to resign. He telephoned his farewells to Bush at Camp David. He wished George and Barbara Bush a merry Christmas. He was, he said, still convinced that keeping the independent republics within the Soviet Union would have been the better way forward, but hoped that the US would co-operate instead with the CIS and would help Russia economically. The “little suitcase” carrying the nuclear button had been transferred, constitutionally, to the Russian president. He concluded by saying, you may therefore feel at ease as you celebrate Christmas, and sleep quietly tonight. How long the West could sleep easily with Boris Yeltsin in charge of the red button turned out to be a moot point, of course.
Two hours later Gorbachev delivered a long, self-justifying television address to the citizens of the fifteen former Soviet republics. He insisted that the USSR could not have gone on as it was when he took office in 1985. We had to change everything, he said. Bush left Camp David for Washington to make his Christmas broadcast. He praised Gorbachev, announced formal diplomatic recognition of the new republics, and called on God to bless their peoples. For over forty years, he said, the United States had led the West…
… in the struggle against communism and the threat it posed to our most precious values. That confrontation is over.
The Fate of the Unions
On 28 January 1992, in his State of the Union address for what was to be an election year (above), George Bush proclaimed that the United States had won the Cold War. Other contemporaries have now been joined by some historians in claiming the same. Speaking the same month, Gorbachev preferred to hail it in the following terms:
I do not regard the end of the Cold War as a victory for one side… The end of the Cold War is our common victory.
Certainly, at the end of this forty-five-year period of East-West tensions that we continue to refer to as The Cold War, the United States remained the one great power and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Reagan, and then Bush, had cautiously and skilfully avoided giving the reactionaries in Moscow a good reason to reverse perestroika, but it was Gorbachev who made the more dramatic moves to end the arms race and the Soviet control of its satellite states in central-Eastern Europe. He surrendered Communist rule in those states and introduced a multi-party system in the USSR itself. He failed to achieve significant economic reform and could not prevent the breakup of the Union, but he played a major role in the manner of the ending of the great power conflict. As the former State Department analyst commented,
He may not have done so alone, but what happened would not have happened without him; that cannot be said of anyone else.
The Cost of the Conflict
At the end of 1991, The United States stood alone as the only remaining superpower, with a booming economy. The poor of the US, however, could certainly have used some of the resources committed to armaments over the previous forty years. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment that Lyndon Johnson’s promise of a Great Society was lost on the battlefield of Vietnam was not short of the mark, and might well be extended to explain the overall failure of successive US administrations to redirect resources to dispossessed and alienated Americans in the decades that have followed President Bush’s triumphalist declaration. Perestroika never made it to the USA, where Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex remained more firmly entrenched at the end of the Cold War than it had been during his presidency.
Above all, the cost of the Cold War must be measured in human lives, however. Though a nuclear catastrophe was averted by a combination of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the watchfulness of those operating surveillance systems on both sides, the ‘proxy’ wars and conflicts did take their toll in military and ‘collateral’ civilian casualties: millions in Korea and Vietnam; hundreds of thousands in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia; tens of thousands in Nicaragua and El Salvador; thousands in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe. Some of the post-colonial regional conflicts might well have happened anyway, but superpower involvement, direct or indirect, made each conflict more deadly. We also need to add to the victims of open hostilities the numbers and names of those who fell foul of the state security and intelligence forces. As well as those, the cost to their home countries of those forced to flee in terror for their lives can never be outweighed by the significant contributions they made their host countries as refugees.
The Cold War also stifled thought: for decades the peoples of Eastern Europe, living under tyranny, were effectively “buried alive” – cut off from and abandoned by the West. Given the choice and the chance, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Slovenes, Croatians, Albanians and Serbs all rejected the various forms of communism which had been imposed on them. After the fall of Allende in Chile, only Fidel Castro in Cuba, until today (26 November 2016) the great Cold warrior and survivor, kept the Red flag flying and the cause of the socialist revolution alive with some remaining semblance of popular support. I heard of his death, aged ninety, after I began to write this piece, so I’ll just make this one comment, in this context, on our right to make judgements on him, based on the text of one of his earliest speeches after coming to power in the popular Marxist revolution forty-seven years ago: History and historians may absolve him: His subsequent victims surely will not. Surely, however, his passing will mark the end of communism in the western hemisphere, and especially in ‘Latin’ America.
Legacies, leaders and losers
Then there is the great question mark left hanging over the twenty-first century: China? The world’s most populous nation is still ruled over by a Communist autocracy, and one which has often played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Cold War, not least in Hungary, where it helped to change Khrushchev’s mind as to what to do about the October 1956 Uprising and then insisted on severe retribution against Imre Nagy and his ministers following the Kádár ‘coup’. It may no longer follow the classical Marxist-Leninist lines of Mao’s Little Red Book, now more revered on the opposition front benches in the UK Parliament than it is in the corridors of power in Beijing, but it may yet succeed in reconciling Communist Party dictatorship with free market economics. Or will the party’s monopoly of power ultimately be broken by the logic of a free market in ideas and communication? That would leave a dangerously isolated North Korea as the only remaining communist dictatorship with nuclear weapons, surely a ‘leftover’ issue on the Cold War plate which the global community will have to attend to at some point soon.
It is hard now to realize or even to recall it, but whole generations in the last century lived with the fear that one crisis or another – Korea, Vietnam, Berlin, Cuba, Suez, Hungary – might trigger a nuclear apocalypse, as the two superpowers were too often prepared to go to the brink. There was also, more omnipresent than we ever realized, the chance of a Dr Strangelove scenario, a nuclear accident, which we now know had much to do with the shift in President Reagan’s policy at the beginning of his second administration in 1984. Fear was endemic, routine, affecting every aspect of every human relationship on much of the globe. The advice to every household in the UK government’s 1970s Protect and Survive was famously lampooned as finally, put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye! Sex was about making love while you still could, and with whoever you could. It wasn’t about bringing more children into the world to live with the fear of fear itself. Parents in many countries remember looking at their children when the world news grew grimmer, hoping that they would all live to see another day, let alone another generation growing up. As teachers, it became our duty to terrify our teenagers into understanding the reality of nuclear war by ‘reeling’ into schools The War Game. The happiest people on the planet were the poorest, those who lived without newspapers, radios, televisions and satellite dishes, blissful in their ignorance and therefore fearless of the world outside their villages and neighbourhoods. Except in some corners of the globe, that fear has been lifted from us, essentially because the world’s leaders recognised and responded to these basic human instincts and emotions, not for any grand ideological, geopolitical goals and policies. But the ignorance, or innocence, had gone too, so the potential for fear of global events to return was only a turn or a click away.
In the end, those in command, on both sides, put humanity’s interests higher than short-term national advantages. Watching The War Game had also worked for Ronald Reagan. Teachers could now stop showing scenes of terrible mutual destruction and start to build bridges, to bring together speakers from Peace through NATO with those from CND, to forge links, to educate and empower across continents. Even then, during the more hopeful final five years of 1986-91, we had to trust our ‘leaders’ in crisis after crisis. Even after glasnost, we could not be sure what exactly they were doing, why and how they were doing it, and what the outcomes would be.
and survived… so wrote Jeremy Isaacs for his ground-breaking television series on The Cold War. As we celebrate twenty-five years since its ending, still lurching from one regional and international crisis to another, are we in danger of celebrating prematurely? Do we need a more serious commemoration of all those who were sacrificed for our collective security, to help us remember our sense of foreboding and genuine fear? With a seemingly less skilful generation of evermore populist, nationalist and autocratic leaders in ‘charge’ across the continents, are we about to re-enter a new age of fear, if not another period of ‘cold war’? How will the seek to protect us from this? How will they ensure our survival? After all, there’s only one race, the human race, and we all have to win it, otherwise we will all be losers, and our oikoumene, the entire created order, will be lost for eternity.
Rudolf Joó (ed), (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.
Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers/ Bantam Press
Marc J Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.
Bloody Thursday, 25 October, in Budapest
Alex von Tunzelmann, speaking about her book on the twin crises of the autumn of 1956, states that ‘Bloody Thursday’, 25 October, is still a very significant date in Hungarian history. It’s still very hard, she claims, to know precise details of what happened, and there are still very many contradictory reports, but effectively thousands of people were gathered in a large and peaceful protest in the main square in Budapest when somebody started shooting. The previous day, as the Hungarian historian Sándor Kiss has pointed out, there were armed conflicts throughout Hungary, so that it was completely natural that the authorities wanted to protect their headquarters. That morning, at dawn, the thirty thousand Soviet troops from barracks in the countryside and border patrol units entered Budapest, and sealed off the capital city. Although the First Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, Gérő had made the request for military assistance by telephone to Khrushchev the day before, it was not until the 26th that the outgoing PM, Hegedus, signed the order, antedating it to the 23rd in order to give it a semblance of legality.
Tom Leimdorfer, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy at the time, recalls hearing the announcement that ‘there will be no school today’. This was no surprise to him, as there had been no school the day before either. The radio also spoke reassuringly of peace returning apart from ‘isolated snipers’ and dispersed ‘counter-revolutionary’ elements. People were advised to stay indoors and there was to be a curfew every evening, as there had been overnight. Later that morning of 25th, less than forty-eight hours after the initial demonstrations on the first day of the uprising, it seemed to some that it might soon be all over, since the impossible seemed to be happening. As the overnight curfew ended and people began going out to work or to look for food. On the streets of the capital Soviet troops continued to fraternise with the Hungarian people.
There is no real consensus about what happened in Kossúth Square on ‘Bloody Thursday’, though there is general agreement on how the events of the day began. In the morning American journalist Leslie Bain was on the streets, near the Astoria Hotel, when he saw three Soviet tanks draped with Hungarian flags and flowers. Girls were kissing Soviet soldiers who were reacting in a friendly manner. Many eye-witnesses have recorded similar scenes. Leaflets in Russian had been distributed asking the soldiers not to fire on Hungarians, who were not ‘fascist counter-revolutionaries’ as the soldiers had been told by their commanders. Bain wrote that it was the most joyous fraternisation between a populace and foreign troops I had ever seen, including the reception received by American liberating troops in Paris.
Apparently, throughout the morning a false rumour spread around the capital that Imre Nagy would be making a speech from the balcony of the Parliament building later that day. People joined together in groups for safety which meant that even larger crowds than two days earlier began marching to Kossúth Square again. Tom Leimdorfer watched many of them streaming past their apartment block (their flat was on second floor of the five-storey block). The demonstration was quite spontaneous, with the crowd, accompanied by Soviet tanks, heading for Parliament. The cries were ‘Down with Gerő!’, ‘We are not fascists!’ and ‘We want Imre Nagy!’ The demonstrators were unarmed, but this time there was no question of Tom joining them.
On reaching the square, now numbering several thousand, they found other Soviet tanks and armoured cars guarding parliament. According to Sándor Kiss, in order for them to have the square under control, the tanks needed between four and six points at which army units could be gathered, ready to intervene if necessary. So, before any firing occurred, the square had been secured under weapons cover by the Soviet and Hungarian troops. While the crowds arrived fraternisation continued, as the picture below of a captured Soviet tank in front of the parliament building shows. This was not one of the tanks guarding parliament, but had been captured earlier in the morning near the Astoria Hotel. This time, the rebels were waving the flag of the usurped post-war democratic Hungarian Republic from the tank.
Throughout the square the crowd, several thousand strong, waited patiently for the Prime Minister’s speech. Some reports say that a delegation from the demonstration entered the parliament building looking for Imre Nagy, though at the time he was still at the Party HQ in nearby Akadémia utca, negotiating with the Soviets and his Party colleagues, not expecting to make a speech to the crowds. A technician from the Plastics Research Institute, twenty-seven-year-old George Jalics was on the streets with his sister Zsófi that morning. They had joined the demonstration and found themselves towards the head of it. Jalics later recalled:
When we got to the square in front of the parliament, we were practically in the first row… Defending the building were five T-34 Russian tanks in a semi-circle. The crowd stopped about a hundred yards from the tanks. Somebody even said that it was not worth getting shot just for a few yards. But then, a strange thing happened. A dialogue began between the throng and the crew of one of the tanks. Suddenly eight or ten people ran up to the tank, climbed up on it, and stood there, signifying the accord between the demonstrators and the tank crews… since there was no reason to fear the tanks any more, we all continued on our way to the parliament. Zsófi and I had been in the first row, so we ended up at the top of the steps, on the left side. By this time the square was packed with demonstrators.
We all sang the National Anthem and waited. For a while there was no reaction from the building. Then a huge Hungarian flag, without the hated communist emblem, was hoisted up on the building. Then we chanted, ‘We want Imre Nagy!’
Suddenly, around midday, the carnival mood had changed completely, as Tom describes:
Soon we could hear shouting and then sound of machine-gun fire, cries, shouts, people running, complete mayhem. We kept back from the window, but from where we were, we would not have seen the broken bodies of over a hundred massacred demonstrators, mowed down by the AVO with many others injured. We only heard the details later, but were fully aware that something dreadful happened just a stone-throw away from our door.
George Jalics recalled that the guns opened fire when the demonstrators began demanding the removal of the Party First Secretary:
After a few minutes had passed, we began to shout ‘Down with Gerő!’ …At that, there was plenty of reply from the ÁVÓ submachine guns located on the rooftops. We only learned about this several years later. As the volleys hit, the crowd scattered in all directions. We were swept along with the crowd down the steps, and then in a big ‘U’ ended up next to the south side of the building, under the roof of one of the side entrances.
The shooting came, most probably, from ÁVH units hidden on nearby rooftops, and killed almost a hundred of the demonstrators. In the confusion, some of the Soviet tanks returned fire on the ÁVH units on the rooftops. Jalics related how…
As we stopped, tightly hemmed in, we noticed that two or three steps from us, in the direction of the square was a Russian armoured car, with a mounted heavy machine gun, firing at the roof of the Agricultural Ministry building across the square. It was so close that the empty shell cases almost fell on us. During breaks the Russian gunner would assure us that everything would be fine. It was obvious that he was not going to harm us.
Sándor Kopácsi, Budapest’s chief of police who later defied the occupying Soviets, had a view over the square from his office in the central police HQ when the events unfurled below him. His account, written in French in 1979, differs in some important details, but confirms the overall narrative given by Jalics:
If we weren’t having much influence on the course of events, at least we had front-row seats. For quite a while we had been hearing a noise, like that of a storm, punctuated by ringing cries. Suddenly, from the upper windows, we saw an immense crowd arrive on the adjacent street. They had come from the municipal park, and were carrying flags and banners and chanting ‘Russians go home!’ and ‘Down with Gerő!’
Men, women, young people – there must have been at least ten thousand of them. From where we were, we saw, as the crowd could not, the three large Soviet Joseph Stalin tanks coming from the opposite direction, straight toward the crowd.
It was like a nightmare. How would the crowd react? Would the Russians panic? We were petrified, powerless to do anything but pray. The tanks arrived on the street. The tank soldiers saw the crowd and the crowd saw the tanks. They were nose to nose.
The tanks stopped and stayed in place, motors idling. The crowd couldn’t stop; it kept coming, swarming around the tanks… Any second, the automatic weapons in the tanks could trigger a bloody slaughter. Instead of that, something else happened.
A boy, undoubtedly a student – the scene took place just below us – pushed his way through the crowd to the first tank and passed something through the loophole. It wasn’t a grenade but a sheet of paper. It was followed by others. These sheets, many of which my men would later collect, were tracts in Russian composed by students in the faculty of oriental languages. They reminded the Soviet soldiers of the wishes of the Hungarian nation and the unfortunate role of policemen in which they had been cast. The tracts started with a citation from Marx: ‘A People that oppresses another cannot itself be free.’
Then the top of the turret of the lead tank opened a little, and the commander… emerged slowly into the view of the apparently unarmed crowd. Then he flung the turret open and perched himself on the top of his tank. Immediately hands reached out to him. Young people leapt up on the tank. A young girl climbed up and kissed him. Someone handed the commander the Hungarian tricolour, and instantly the flag was affixed to the tank. The crowd erupted in a frantic ovation. In this jubilant atmosphere, the commander’s cap was thrown into the middle of the crowd. In exchange, someone plunked a Hungarian Army ‘kepi’ on his head. The crowd sang ‘Kossúth’s Song’ and then the Hungarian National Anthem. And, at the top of their voices, they cried, ‘Long live the Soviet Army’. Yet these were the same people who, fifteen minutes before, had determinedly chanted ‘Russians go home!’
Half an hour later, Kopácsi received a telephone call, however, received a frantic call from the female police captain who had reported to him the previous day informing him of the ÁVH platoon which had armed itself with heavy machine guns on the roof of the Parliament building. The lieutenant commanding the platoon came down to get water for his men. When he saw the crowd he hurried back up yelling, “This can’t happen. We’ve got our orders.” Kopácsi passed the news to his senior officers, but none of them could believe that the ÁVH would fire on an unarmed crowd accompanied by Soviet tanks. To make sure, he called the Ministry of Interior to explain the peaceful nature of the crowd, to be assured that the ministry knew what was going on. Three minutes later, his captain called him again with the dreadful news that the ÁVH had opened fire ‘from every roof’, and that the Soviet tanks had returned fire in defence of the crowds. The ‘butchery’ ended with the intervention of the twenty Soviet tanks surrounding parliament. Their captain fired his guns at the security forces, forcing them to abandon their positions. Eventually, in the meantime, the police chief managed to get through to Imre Nagy:
“There’s a crowd in front of the Parliament demanding Gerő’s dismissal. They’re being slaughtered”
“The comrades from the Soviet Politburo have just left. Gerő has been dismissed and replaced by Kádár at the head of the party. I am prime minister. What else does the crowd want?”
“Comrade Nagy, perhaps you haven’t yet been informed of what is happening. The ÁVH is slaughtering unarmed people. There are three hundred dead in front of parliament. Your new government is drenched in the blood of innocent people. I can’t find the words to tell you…”
Nagy understood. In a voice suddenly changed, he said, “I’ll do what is necessary right away. This is horryfying, it’s a disgrace.”
The massacre released new passions, especially as news of similar events were arriving from some of the provincial towns. A hunt for the ÁVH agents started, resulting in their lynchings and torture. Under these circumstances, Gérő’s replacement by János Kádár went almost unnoticed. Like Nagy, Kádár was another of those who had been purged in the early 1950s. He was also brought back into government and appointed First Secretary of the party, replacing Gérő, as well as Foreign Secretary. This was an initiative of the Soviet advisors, Mikoyan and Suslov, who had arrived on 24th. Gérő disappeared, suddenly and permanently. The radio announced the fall of the First Secretary, and Kádár made the following broadcast:
The politburo of our Party has entrusted me with the post of First Secretary of the Central Committee in a grave and difficult situation… The Government should conduct negotiations with the Soviet Government in a spirit of complete equality between Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Not a word was broadcast about the butchery in front of parliament. The official statement, released much later, had it that the perpetrators were not the ÁVH, but insurgent provocateurs. A few hours earlier, the announcement of Gerő’s departure might well have quelled the discontent. Now, the massacre in the square had turned the atmosphere too ugly for such a compromise. The horrible news of the massacre spread rapidly throughout the city and the hunt was on for those responsible. Toward 3 p.m., ten thousand people surrounded the national police headquarters, which was thought, mistakenly, to house the ÁVH. Fighting continued, while the party organisation and the local administration started to collapse, their role being taken over by spontaneously appointed local revolutionary committees and councils; workers’ councils were created in factories. Nagy assured Moscow of Hungary’s loyalty, but the Kremlin was split between those who wanted to accommodate the new government and those advocating a further show of strength. Nagy had to decide between crushing the uprising by resorting to Soviet arms, and trying to solve the crisis with the revolutionaries. Meanwhile, those revolutionaries were busy removing all the red stars they could find from government buildings.
There are no official documents to confirm Kopácsi’s account of how the first shot came to be fired. It was widely held at the time, by eye-witnesses, that the shooting had come from the roof of the Ministry of Agriculture (above), directly across from parliament, and that the perpetrators were indeed the state security authority (ÁVH or ÁVO). Their immediate motive was almost certainly to put an end to the fraternisation, but had perhaps received previous orders to open fire if they feared an attack on parliament, as Kopácsi suggested. Historian Sándor Kiss has pointed out that,
The massacre had a retributive purpose. The crowd demonstrating was not armed, and they arrived with peaceful intentions. They wanted to demonstrate their support for Imre Nagy, and this demonstration was dispersed not once, but on two occasions. If we look at… (recent) research,… we find that they shot at the people trying to escape… If you just wanted to clear the square, then you only shoot at those that are there, to scare them away, by shooting in the air. No, not here, they shot directly (at the people), and that’s the point.
The ‘innocence’ of the crowds themselves is also confirmed by the absence of legal documentation. At the reprisal trials conducted after the defeat of the Uprising, where the Kádár régime’s prosecutors could pin some act of violence on the insurgents they immediately began court proceedings. In the case of the Kossúth tér shootings, they did not do so. Even the ‘official’ versions of the early Kádár era tended to accept that the first shots had been fired from the roof of the ministry building. For instance, the report of the Hungarian parliamentary guard, published in the third volume of the White Books concurred with the view of Jalics and Kopácsi given above. Nevertheless, as late as 1986 the view that the firing into the crowd was a provocation by the insurgents was still being repeated. Other Eye-witness accounts contained the following observations:
At first it sounded like a single or a short series of shots, later it was continuous shooting.
We threw ourselves to the ground and began to crawl over under the arcade (at the entrance to the Ministry building).
I was standing in the doorway (of the Ministry… wondering) where I should go, should I follow the children? I didn’t dare to step out, and then people were running from the Ministry of Agriculture. I saw one man had pieces of brain on his trench coat. Then I began to cry, and I didn’t know what was going to happen or what was happening. Then there was quiet, the circus was over and I ran to the square… My little daughter was lying right there by the Rákóczi statue. I held her in my arms. I didn’t know she wasn’t alive. My daughter had long hair and it was covered with blood. She must have been shot in the throat. I didn’t dare to take the personal identification to the 5th District city council for a long time…
Perhaps the most credible view of how the events of ‘Bloody Thursday’ developed comes from John MacCormac’s account in the New York Times of 27 October in which he wrote that the political police opened fire on the demonstrators and panicked the Soviet tank crews into the belief that they were being attacked. Yet even he gives contradictory accounts of the actions of the Soviet tank crews, claiming that one of them also opened fire on demonstrators, and admitted that the whole episode took place in mysterious circumstances for which no explanation has been forthcoming. The historian Miklós Horváth concludes:
Uncontrolled shooting begins, there are many different armed units, from government guards to border control, to soldiers, the area is filled with those from the ministry of the interior and the secret police.
They (a Russian unit) came up to the square, and an armoured vehicle arrives at Báthory Street, today the corner of ‘Martyrs’ Square, and they have no idea how the fire fight broke out, and they’re shooting at everyone. This armoured vehicle… also shot fragmentation grenades in the direction of the Rákóczi Statue (in the centre-left of the square facing parliament). This caused the greatest slaughter.
I can’t rule out that they shot from the Ministry of Agriculture building, though in the square the shots echoed. It’s not known if these were the rounds hitting the building’s walls, or the sound of the shots coming from the square which they thought were coming from the roof of the building, but the injuries of the dead and their location indicates that most victims, a significant number, were the victims of Soviet weapons.
The two views are not mutually exclusive, of course. The UN Report of 1957 agreed that the firing directed at the crowds came from both the rooftops and some of the Soviet tanks. This is the position followed by the latest memorial to the victims (below), which takes the form of a display of memorabilia and re-enacted video/ photographic images.