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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Four: Liberation & Democratic Transition in Hungary, 1988-2004.   Leave a comment


Goodbye János Kádár!

By the end of 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev had clearly abandoned the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ in terms of which the Soviet Union undertook to resort to military force in critical situations in the ‘eastern bloc’ countries. In other words, he intimated that the events of 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in Czechoslovakia and 1981 in Poland, where an invasion was only prevented by the announcement of martial law, would not be repeated. Kádár, the one-time pioneer of reforms in the bloc, was deeply disturbed by Gorbachev’s aspirations, for they now made any depth of reform possible, whereas the ones enacted up to 1985 in Hungary were the maximum he was willing to concede. It was rumoured among the broad segment of reformers in the party rank-and-file, whose expectations were heightened by Glasnost and Perestroika, that Gorbachev’s statements were being censored in Hungary as well as in the more rigid socialist countries. In the final stage of Kádár’s reforms in Hungary, ‘multiple candidacy’ was introduced for future general elections, allowing ‘independent’, non-party candidates to stand, resulting in ten per cent of the new parliament being composed of such deputies in 1985. Any further step in the opening up of the public sphere would have provided a fundamental challenge to the régime’s power base.

Supported by a faceless crowd of yes-men of his own age in the upper echelons of the party hierarchy, Kádár stubbornly denied any allegation that Hungary was in crisis. When he could no longer maintain this facade, in July 1987 he dropped his long-standing Prime Minister György Lázár, replacing him with one of the several vigorous, relatively young figures who were biding their time in the lower echelons. Károly Grósz was the most characteristic representative of the new technocratic cadres which were in favour of going forward with economic reforms without changing the political system. The policy of transition to a mixed economy based on mixed forms of property (state, co-operative and private) was therefore carried forward with the elimination of subsidised prices; the return, after four decades, of a two-level banking system and the introduction of a new tax system, including progressive personal income tax. Grósz also continued the ‘openness’ policy towards the West by abolishing all travel restrictions, winning Gorbachev’s confidence in the process. The Soviet leader had no objection to getting rid of Kádár, who was aged, sick and tired in every sense of the word. As he outlived his days, the stage was set for a succession struggle.

Besides Grósz, the main contenders included Nyers, the architect of the 1968 economic reforms and Imre Pozsgay, whose commitment to reform extended to the political sphere, in favour of democratisation. He was supported by a sizeable reform wing within the party, as well as by a group of social scientists who prepared, under his protection, a scenario for a transition to pluralism in 1986, Turning Point and Reform. In addition, Pozsgay communicated with a segment of the opposition led by ‘populist’ intellectuals. An investigation within the party and the expulsion of four prominent reformist intellectuals from the party in the spring of 1988 were intended by the ‘old guard’ to deter the opposition within the party, but the measure missed its target. Then on 22 May 1988, Kádár’s long rule came to an abrupt end: the party conference elevated him to the entirely impotent post of Party Chairman, electing Grósz as Party Secretary in his place and completely reshuffling the Political Committee. By this time the different opposition groups that had been germinating for a considerable period in the ‘secondary public sphere’ stepped forward into the primary one and started to develop as political parties, presenting the public with analyses of past and present communism, diagnoses of Hungary’s predicament, and antidotes to it, which proved to be more credible than the versions prevented by officialdom.

From its inception in the late 1970s, the opposition that arose as a viable political alternative a decade later was distinguishable from the post-1968 dissidents both by their ideological orientation and their strategy. Instead of grafting pluralism and democracy onto Marxism, which the experience of 1956 had shown to be futile, they drew on the liberal-democratic and Christian national traditions, and instead of the similarly futile effort to represent these endeavours in the ‘primary’ public sphere, whose organs and institutions were dominated by the party, they created and maintained autonomous organisations. At the outset, these initiatives were confined to a few dozen individuals, maintaining contacts with a few hundred others among the intellectuals of research institutes, university departments, editorial offices and student circles. Through these, their views started to infiltrate into the pages of literary and social science journals of the ‘primary’ sphere that were testing the limits of free speech. From the mid-1980s on, some of them also developed contacts with reformers within the party. Of course, the authorities continued to possess detailed and up-to-date information about the activities of opposition and the groups linked with them. But given the developing dialogue with the West and its increasing dependence on western loans, the régime could not afford to show its iron fist. Whenever the opposition made itself visible by coming out on the streets for alternative commemorations of the 1848 and 1956 Revolutions, up to 1988 arrests, detentions and beatings invariably followed. Otherwise, the régime contented itself with occasional harassment: sporadic searches, the confiscation of illegal publications, the rejection of travel permits, censorship of writers and replacement of editorial boards.

Far from being homogeneous, from the outset, there were clear divisions within the opposition, reflecting the old urban-populist divide, although they maintained a co-operative dialogue until the eve of the transition process. The ‘populists’ identified national ‘questions of fate’ as their main commitment, such as the conditions of Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries, types of social delinquency, demographic problems, the conditions of the Churches, the loosening of communal ties and the effects of communism on the national consciousness. The neglect of these issues by the government, especially the first, led to the beginning of these ‘populist’ nationalist trends, also at the end of the 1970s. From 1983 Sándor Csoóri became a dominant figure among the ‘populists’, with polemical writings combining the above-mentioned themes with a critique of the morally detrimental effects of socialism. New social service periodicals succeeded in outmaneuvering censorship and discussing in a more objective manner an extensive range of sensitive themes, not just Stalinism and the 1956 Revolution, but also anti-Semitism, the condition of the Roma minority, poverty and the anomalies of the social security system. Both liberal Democrats and populists established links with Hungarian emigré organisations in the West, benefiting in the shape of scholarships from the New York-based Open Society Foundation launched by the Hungarian-American businessman George Soros in 1982, which also opened a registered office in Budapest five years later.

In the first half of the 1980s, the endeavour of anti-communist cooperation dominated the relationship of the two camps of the opposition, so different in outlook. A conference was held at Monor in 1985 in June 1985, whose speakers addressed and analysed the most soaring issues of the then generalised crisis. As the transformation of the system responsible for it came on to the agenda, and programmes started to be worked out, the ways of ‘urbanists’ and ‘populists’ parted. In June 1987 the programme of the democratic opposition was published, entitled ‘Social Contract’. They were uncompromising in claiming that the current political leadership was unsuitable to guide the process. Their document concluded that Kádár must go. This was too radical for the populists, who envisaged a more gradual transition, with an active role for reform communists within it. As a result, the democratic opposition was not invited to the meeting of the ‘populist’ camp which took place at Lakitelek, near Kecskemét, where the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) was founded. This was a recognised movement with the goal of transforming into a political party and was formed in the presence of Pozsgay and other reform Communists, on 27 September 1987.


The Young ‘Liberal’ Democrat, Viktor Orbán, speaking at the re-interment of Imre Nagy in June 1989. These days, neither Liberal Democracy nor Nagy’s Social Democracy are any more fashionable for Orbán and his now ultra-Conservative party and government.

The Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ), established on 30 March 1988, originally as an alternative to the Communist Youth League, endeavoured to supersede the urbanist-populist divide and submitted a programme in which a mixed economy, human rights, political pluralism and national values were given equal emphasis. At the same time, it also identified itself as a radical liberal initiative, and for some time during the ‘Transition’, it remained the closest political ally of the former democratic opposition. The ‘urbanist’ counterpart of the MDF was the Network of Free Initiatives, launched on 1 May 1988 which then developed into the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) on 13 November that same year, after their hope of integrating most or all of the democratic opposition became thwarted by the mushroom-like growth of quasi-political organisations, together with professional associations and trade unions in the intervening six months. Shortly afterwards, the ‘historical parties’ reformed themselves: the Independent Smallholder Party re-emerged on 18 November 1988, followed by the Social Democrats in January and the Christian Democrats in April 1989.

Meanwhile, in November 1988, Grósz had passed over the premiership to Miklós Németh who, contrary to expectations, became one of the engineers of transition. He drew reinforcement from the successful manoeuvring of Pozsgay, who arose as an emblematic figure of reform Communist policies by sharpening the divisions within the party through a number of publicly made statements from late 1988 onwards. Pozsgay had avoided getting involved on either side in the 1956 Uprising because he was based in a provincial town at the time. He was an intellectual by instinct and training, who had worked his way up through the system until he and his fellow reformers had been strong enough to vote Kádár, who had once referred to him as ‘impertinent’, out of power in May 1988. It was then that Pozsgay became a member of the Politburo and it was soon after that he, not Grosz, had emerged as the dominant figure in the party leadership. Most notably, his announcements had included breaking the taboo of 1956: the redefinition of the ‘counter-revolution’ was as a ‘popular uprising’, and the urging of the introduction of a multi-party system. This was ratified by the legislature on 11 January, and acknowledged by the party on February 11, 1989. Through a cabinet reshuffle in May 1989, the followers of Grósz were replaced in most posts by pragmatic reformers like Németh himself. This did much to undermine hard-liner positions in the party and to push it to disintegration. The founder of the party did not live to see it. In early May 1989, Kádár was relieved of his offices, and died on 6 July, the same day that Imre Nagy was officially rehabilitated.

Even before his total removal from power, it was already being openly said that the Kádár period had come to an end. What had come into existence under his aegis was now in ruins economically. The attempts of the régime at reform had won excessive, flattering judgements in the West, making it more suspect within the Eastern Bloc. But the end of the third decade of Kádár’s rule was overshadowed by the previously whispered, but later admitted, information that Hungary had accumulated a foreign debt of twenty billion dollars, most of it in a couple of years of recklessness. This was where the contradictory, limited national consensus had ended up, in a cul-de-sac of national bankruptcy; this was what the divergence of production of production and consumption, the maintenance of a tolerable standard of living, and the erroneous use of the loans received had amounted to. The heavy interest burden on these debts alone was to have its effects for decades, crippling many early attempts at renewal.


By July 1989, Hungary had become a de facto multi-party democracy again. Although these parties, new or old, were not mass parties with large numbers of activists, they were able to show that Grósz was wrong to suggest, as he once did at the end of 1988, that the streets belong to us. There were few mass demonstrations during this period, but those that did take place were organised by the opposition and were effective in conveying clear messages. They included mass protests over Ceausescu’s treatment of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania, reminding the Communists of their neglect of nationalist issues, and against the proposed construction of the hydro-electric dam system on the Danube Bend, which called attention to the ecological spoliation of communism. On 15 March, the anniversary of the 1848 Revolution, there was a keen competition to dominate the commemorative events in which the opposition scored a sweeping triumph; its main message was that the hundred-and-forty years of demands for civil liberty and representative government was still on the national agenda.


Above: The Danube Bend at Visegrád, where the river, hemmed in by the Börzöny and Pilis Hills, meanders beneath the castle at Visegrád. After the foundation of the Hungarian State, Visegrád was one of the first ecclesiastical centres, as well as being a royal estate and a county seat. After the Turkish Conquest in the sixteenth century. the ‘Hungarian Versailles’ was laid low and almost completely raised to the ground. In the 1980s the area was again brought to the forefront of public attention. Czechoslovakia and Hungary long ago planned the building of a dam, of which the main Slovak installation would be at Bős and the main Hungarian installation at Nagymaros, north of Visegrád, in close proximity to the Royal castle and palace. But in East Central Europe during the 1980s growing political dissatisfaction and civic opposition found an object of focus in this gigantic project. In this, ecological and environmental considerations played a major part, with national and international ramifications.  The Hungarian domestic opposition had two main areas of activity: the publication and distribution of pamphlets and the struggle against the Danube dam. In response to this, the new Hungarian government elected in 1990 stopped all construction work on its side of the river and started to restore the bank to its natural state. Later, the ‘Visegrád’ group of four neighbouring countries was formed at the palace.   



The most dramatic of all the public demonstrations was the official re-burial of the remains of Imre Nagy and his fellow ‘martyrs’ on the anniversary of their execution, 16 June 1989, which amounted to a public confession that in its origins the régime was built on terror and injustice. Nagy’s body, along with the others executed in 1958 was found in the waste ground at the Újköztemető (cemetery), wrapped in tar paper. After its exhumation, Nagy’s coffin lay in state in Heroes’ Square before being formally reburied. Over three hundred thousand citizens paid their respects to the martyrs of 1956, together with the tributes of government ministers. The fact that only a year beforehand police had used force to disperse a group of a few hundred demonstrators commemorating the martyrdom illustrates the rapid erosion of the régime’s authority and the simultaneous occupation of the public space by the opposition by the middle of 1989.



The Hole in the Curtain:


At last Hungary had come to terms with its past. Its future was determined by a decision taken by the Central Committee of the HSWP, to put the rapidly developing multi-party system on an official basis. Pozsgay’s own position had often seemed closer to that of the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) than to that of his own party. In the midst of these preparations for a peaceful transition of power and democratic elections, Kádár’s successors surprised the world at large. The summer of the annus mirabilis continued with its internationally most immediately conspicuous achievement: the dismantling of the ‘iron curtain’, the barbed-wire fence on the Austrian frontier, a process which had begun in May. On 23 August, the Foreign Minister Gyula Horn spent a sleepless night worrying about the changes going on around him and the irritated reactions of Hungary’s Warsaw Pact allies to them. He had been telephoned by the East German Foreign Minister, determined to know what was happening to Hungary’s border with Austria. He had assured him that sections had been removed for repair and would shortly be replaced.




Again at Pozsgay’s instigation, the border gates were opened to allow for a ‘pan-European picnic’ in the woods on the Austrian side, which several hundred East Germans (‘holidaying’ at Lake Balaton) were able to stream through (pictured above). Hungarian citizens already had the right to visa-free travel to the West, but thousands of disenchanted East Germans, hearing from compatriots of the ‘hole’ in the curtain, had been making their way into Hungary via Czechoslovakia to escape from their own unpopular hard-line régime. Hungary had signed a treaty with East Germany in 1968 pledging not to allow East Germans to leave for the West through its territory. Horn sounded out Moscow as for a reaction as to whether the Soviet leadership would object if Hungary abandoned this undertaking. This was an urgent practical problem for the Hungarians, as about twenty thousand citizens from the DDR were seeking refuge at the FRG Embassy in Budapest. The Soviets did not object, so Horn resolved to open the main border crossings on the roads to the West. He said later that…

… It was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events. 


Above: (left) Demonstrators in Budapest keep up the momentum; (right and below) East Germans, holidaying in Hungary, cross the border and head West, to the fury of their government, and to their own freedom.


On 10 September, despite strenuous objections from the East German government, Hungary’s border with Austria was opened to the East German refugees. Within three days, thirteen thousand East Germans, mostly young couples with children, had fled west. This was the biggest exodus across the ‘iron curtain’ since the Berlin Wall was built in 1961, and it was only the beginning. Eschewing its erstwhile role as ‘gendarme’, still expected of it within the Eastern camp, Hungary decided to let the refugees go West without exit visas, thereby playing the role of catalyst in the disintegration of the whole Soviet bloc. Over the next few months the international situation was transformed. Liberalisation in Hungary had led directly to the collapse of the Húsak régime in Prague and the breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Writing in 1990, the historian István Lázár commented:

Naturally, all this can, or should, be seen in connection with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, even if in history questions of cause and effect are not entirely settled. However the question of what went before and what happened afterwards is constantly debated in history. Hungary, desperate and euphoric at the same time, turning away from the road followed for almost a half century and hardly able to see the path of the future … took  state, national and political risks with some of its decisions in 1989 in a context of a rather uncertain international situation which was not moving towards stability. This is how we arrived at the 1990s. 


Queues on the road to Sopron and the border, with cardboard Trabants and boxes.

Tradition and Transition:


Simultaneously, the scenario worked out by the opposition and Németh’s pragmatists to facilitate an orderly transition was launched. Between June and September 1989, representatives of the HSWP, the Opposition ‘Round Table’ (established in March by eight organisations) and the ‘third side’ (the Patriotic Popular Front and the trade unions) discussed the central issues of the transition process at national meetings. By the time President Bush visited Budapest in July (11-13), Hungary had effectively ceased to be a Communist country or a Soviet satellite state. I have written elsewhere on this site about this first ever visit by a US President, its importance and its outcomes. John Simpson, the BBC’s correspondent was standing on the balcony of a flat overlooking Kossúth Square where the President was due to make a speech. The owner of the flat was an Anglophile in his mid-forties from a wealthy background. There were English touches on the walls: mementoes of visits by at least two generations of the family. From his balcony they looked down on the enthusiastic crowds that were starting to gather:

“These little Communists of ours are acting like real politicians”, he said; “they’re giving people what they want, instead of what they ought to want. The trouble is, they can never give us so much that we can forget that they are Communists”. …

… He was right about the fundamental unpopularity of the Party. I went to see Imre Pozsgay a few days later and asked him whether he and his colleagues would really be the beneficiaries of the changes they were introducing.

“Who can say? Naturally I hope so. That’s why we’re doing these things. But to be honest with you, there’s nothing else we can do. Even if others win the elections, there’s no serious alternative to doing what we have done”.

On 18 September, an agreement was signed which emphasised a mutual commitment to the creation of the legal and political conditions under which a multi-party democracy could be established and the rule of law upheld. In addition, it put forward plans for surmounting the ongoing economic crisis. It required the amending of the communist constitution of 1949, the establishment of a constitutional court and the re-regulation of the order of national elections, legislation on the operation and finances of political parties and the amendment of the penal code. The two ‘liberal’ parties, the SZDSZ and FIDESZ refused to sign the agreement because it stipulated the election of a head of state before the elections, which they thought would benefit the only obvious candidate and most popular reform-politician, Imre Pozsgay. They also hoped to drive a wedge between the reform Communists and the MDF by insisting on a referendum on the issue, the result of which went in their favour. It was a sure sign of what was to come the following spring.

On 6 October, Gorbachev began a two-day visit to East Germany to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the German Democratic Republic (DDR). The government there, led for almost half of its life by the now seventy-four-year-old Erich Honecker, remained perhaps the most repressive régime in Eastern Europe. Only four days earlier, it had sealed its border with Czechoslovakia to prevent its people from voting with their feet and flooding to the West through Hungary. When Gorbachev suggested that a more permanent solution might be for the DDR to introduce a version of perestroika to satisfy people’s material needs and demands, Honecker refused to listen. He pointed out that on his last visit to Moscow, he had been shocked by the empty shops. How dare Gorbachev tell the leader of what many believed was the most prosperous country in the socialist world how he should run his economy! But Gorbachev persisted, telling a large rally that East Germany should introduce Soviet-style reforms, adding that the country’s policies should, however, be determined “not in Moscow, but in Berlin”. Two days after he left, Honecker was ousted within the DDR’s Politburo and replaced by Egon Krenz, who represented himself as the East German Gorbachev.


The crowds outside the Parliament welcoming the proclamation of the institution of a Liberal Democratic Constitution for the new ‘Republic of Hungary’, October 1989.

Meanwhile, meeting in Budapest, the Fourteenth Congress of the HSWP also proved to be its last. It officially abandoned Leninism. On the 7th, the vast majority of its deputies voted in favour of creating a new Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which defined its aims in terms akin to those of Western European socialist parties. Out of seven hundred thousand Communist Party members, only fifty thousand transferred their membership to the new Socialist Party, before the first free elections of March 1990. Shortly after the dissolution of the HSWP, the party’s paramilitary organisation, the Workers’ Guard was also disbanded. In another ‘gesture’ to the memory of 1956, reparation payments were authorized by Parliament to those imprisoned after the Uprising. On the anniversary of Uprising, 23 October, Acting President Mátyás Szűrös proclaimed the new “Republic of Hungary” on the thirty-third anniversary of the Revolution. The “People’s Republic” created forty years earlier, had ceased to exist.


Parliament had changed eighty per cent of the 1949 constitution in the interim one that replaced it. It defined the peaceful transition to a market economy and the rule of law as the goal of the state. Its fundamental principles were defined as ‘civil democracy’ and ‘democratic socialism’. It guaranteed civil and human rights, declared the establishment of a multi-party system, not only eliminating the clause referring to the leading role of the Marxist-Leninist party of the working class but also outlawed the exercise of power by any single party. It was the first time that a ruling Communist Party anywhere had rejected its ideological faith and authorised a shift to liberal democracy and capitalism. Shortly after the promulgation and proclamation of the new constitution both inside and outside parliament (see the picture below), the red star was removed from the top of the building, demonstrating the end of the system of state socialism.

Yet now the full vulnerability of the economy was already being revealed, and the necessary decrease in consumption had to be forced on a society which was expecting a contrary shift. The past, both the pre-1949 and the post-1958 periods, began to be viewed with nostalgia, as ‘old-new’ ideas resurfaced alongside ‘brand-new’ ones. On the political scene, in both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary spheres, a faltering democracy continued to develop amidst struggles of bitter and frequently depressing content and form. In the meantime, both Eastern and Western visitors to Hungary at the beginning of the 1990s found the country more affluent and resourceful than did its own citizens, who saw it being forced into worrying straits. Eastern visitors were influenced by their own, often more miserable position, while Westerners found things better than their out-dated stereotypes of life behind the iron curtain would have led them to expect. This was Hungary’s paradox: almost every outside observer values the apparent dynamism of the country greatly, but unless they became inhabitants themselves, as some of us did, did they begin to see the burdens of ‘the changes’ born by ‘ordinary’ Hungarians and understood their caution and pessimism.


Above: The famous MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) poster from the 1990 Election Campaign: Comrades Go Home!

On 2 November, as Minister of State, Imre Pozsgay met President Bush in Washington to discuss Hungary’s transition to democracy, a week before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The following January, Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, at the same time as Czechoslovakia and Poland, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers in Budapest, with effect from 1 July. In February, the United States signed an agreement providing for a Peace Corps Program in Hungary, to begin the following September. In March, the Soviet Union reached an agreement to remove all Soviet troops from Hungary by July 1991, two-thirds of them by the end of 1991. John Simpson’s friend in Budapest had promised his father that he would not drink the bottle of Bell’s Scotch Whisky he had placed in the cupboard in 1947 until the day the Soviet troops left Budapest. That day was now approaching. When the final round of elections took place on 8 April 1990, the reform Communists won only eight per cent of the seats, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office. A centre-right government came to power, led by the MDF. They had won 164 out of the 386 seats. Looking back from later in 1990, John Simpson commented:

As in 1918, Hungary had emerged from and empire and found itself on its own; though this time, unlike the violence and destruction which followed the abortive Communist republic of Béla Kun in 1919, the transition was peaceable and relaxed. Hungary’s economy and environment had been horribly damaged by thirty-three years of Marxism-Leninism; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. There are dozens of men and women … who had a part in encouraging the revolutions (which followed) … But the stout figure of Imre Pozgay, who now stays at home and cooks for his family while he tries to work out what to do next, is one of the more important of them.


Rather than bringing stability and calm, however, the 1990s in Hungary were a time of intensive movement across the political spectrum from right to left and back again, with a minority persisting on both extremes and an undercurrent of the old ‘populist-urbanist’ divide surfacing from time to time to emphasise patriotism over cosmopolitanism. Of the sixty-five parties formed in 1988-89, only twelve could run a national list at the elections of March-April 1990, and the four per cent ‘threshold’ required to make it into parliament eliminated half of them. Of the six parties that surpassed this, the highest-scoring MDF invited the Smallholders and the Christian Democrats to form a centre-right coalition. József Antall, a historian and museum curator who had become President of the MDF the previous year, became Hungary’s first prime minister in the new democratic era. Pledging itself to uphold Christian and national values besides democracy and the market economy, the coalition enjoyed a comfortable sixty per cent majority. The opposition consisted of the two liberal parties, the SZDSZ, which came second in the elections, and FIDESZ. The Socialists struggled hard to emerge from the isolation the past had thrown them into. Based on a ‘pact’ between Antall and the SZDSZ leadership, the prominent writer, translator and victim of the 1956 reprisals, Árpád Göncz, was elected by parliament as its Speaker and the President of the Republic. Over the next four years, he made periodic use of his limited powers to act as a counterweight to governmental power. He was re-elected in 1995.

As a result of the first free elections after the fall of state socialism, there was a comprehensive change in the highest echelons of the political élite: ninety-five per cent of the MPs were new in that position. Nearly as dramatic was the change in their social and cultural backgrounds. The first setback for the coalition government came in the municipal elections of the autumn of 1990. In the larger settlements, the two liberal parties scored much better than the government parties. The prominent SZDSZ politician, Gábor Demszky became Mayor of Budapest and was subsequently re-elected four times, becoming the most successful politician in post-1989 Hungary.  Following a protracted illness in late 1993, József Antall died. His funeral, in December 1993, was attended by world leaders including US Vice President Albert Gore. He was replaced by Peter Boross, his Minister of the Interior. With Antall’s untimely death, the MDF lost a politician whose stature was unparalleled among its inexperienced ranks.

It was not only a shift in political sympathies among a considerable proportion of voters that started well before the parliamentary elections of 1994, the outcome of which astounded many people from more than one point of view. A recasting of roles and ideological commitments accompanied a realignment of partnerships among the parties from roughly halfway through the electoral cycle. The MDF had first emerged as a grassroots democratic movement and had advocated a ‘third way’ between capitalism and communism. It had also been open towards ‘democratic socialism’. In government, it had adjusted itself to the personality of Antall, a ‘conservative liberal’, and had had to work hard to purge itself of its radical nationalist right-wing, which seceded in 1993 as the Party of Hungarian Justice and Life (MIÉP) led by the writer István Csurka. After its 1990 electoral victory, the MDF had indulged in militantly anti-communist rhetoric. This contrasted with the trajectory of the SZDSZ, which had initially tried to undermine the MDF’s credibility with allegations of collaboration with the former communists. Following the ‘media war’ which broke out between the two major parties, while the SZDSZ refused to abandon its core liberal values of upholding human rights, civil liberties and multi-culturalism, it re-evaluated its policies towards the left. This enabled the MSZP to re-emerge from the shadows and paved the way for the Democratic Charter, an initiative by intellectuals from both parties to counter the tide of radical nationalism that was threatening to engulf Hungarian political life.


Viktor Orbán in the mid-1990s, looking Right.

In these circumstances, the earlier affinity and sometimes close collaboration between the SZDSZ and FIDESZ began to unravel as the inherent differences between them became ever more obvious. Of FIDESZ’s initial platform – anti-communism, youth culture and political liberalism – only the first was entirely preserved, while the second was quickly abandoned and the third was increasingly modified by an emphasis on Christian values, conservative traditions and strong central government. By 1994, FIDESZ had thus redefined itself as a party of the centre-right, with the ambition to become the dominant and integrative force of that segment of the political spectrum. This process was cemented in the public eye by the addition of the title Hungarian Civic Party (MPP) to its name. In 1999, it resigned from the ‘Liberal International’ and joined the ‘European People’s Party’, the conservative-Christian Democrat alliance in the EU. But in 1994, there was a general recovery in the fortunes of European socialists and social democrats, and the pledges of the MSZP to the values of social democracy looked credible enough to earn it widespread respectability in Europe and admission to the ‘Socialist International’. Its pragmatism and its emphasis on modernisation and technological development won it a landslide victory in an election which showed that the country was tired of ideological strife and disappointed with the lack of progress in the economic transition. Although the Socialists won over fifty per cent of the seats in parliament, the SZDSZ accepted the offer of Gyula Horn, MSZP chairman, to join a coalition. The other four parties of the previous parliament constituted the opposition. The Socialist-Liberal coalition government faced urgent economic tasks.

In the early to mid-nineties, Western corporations and investors came to Hungary hoping, in the long run, for a strong revival from the Hungarian economy. They procrastinated over possible investment, however, due to the threat of uncontrolled inflation. In an economy which was rapidly polarising society, with increasing unemployment and poverty while the rich got visibly richer, Hungarian citizens were already gloomy when they looked around themselves. According to the journalist Paul Lendvai, between 1988 and 1993 GDP fell by twenty per cent, twelve per cent alone in 1991; in 1990-91 real wages fell by twelve per cent, while inflation was thirty-five per cent in 1991, twenty-three per cent in 1992 and only sank below twenty per cent in 1993. Unemployment had risen sharply as thousands of firms were liquidated and half a million jobs disappeared. If they contemplated, beyond the borders, a crisis-ridden Eastern Europe beset by nationality problems and compelled to starve before the much-promised economic upturn, they were gloomier still. As Lázár commented:

Looking at the recent changes, perhaps ungratefully, this is how we stand in East Central Europe in the middle of Carpathian Basin, before the 1100th anniversary of the Hungarian Conquest, which, in five years time, will be followed by the opening of the third millennium…

In spite of the differences in their fundamental values, socialist and liberal, the MSZP and SZDSZ had similar policies on a number of pressing transitional tasks, such as Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic integration and monetarist reform, providing a wide scope for collaboration between them. In both of these priorities, they were successful, but none of these did much to assuage the resentment many voters felt towards the post-1989 politicians in general. In addition, many SZDSZ supporters were puzzled by the party’s reconciliation with the Socialists which they felt had robbed the party of its original liberal character. In the light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the SZDSZ followed the other great party of the 1990 régime change, the MDF, into relative obscurity following the 1998 general election. The remodelled FIDESZ-MPP attracted growing support during the second part of the election cycle, capitalising on mistakes made by the Socialists. While the latter maintained much of their popularity, FIDESZ-MPP won the election narrowly on the platform of a ‘civic Hungary’ in which the post-communist heritage would be forever buried while the state would accept greater responsibility in supporting the growth of a broad middle-class following Christian-nationalist values.

To obtain a secure parliamentary majority, the FIDESZ chairman and new PM, Viktor Orbán, formed a coalition with the MDF and the Independent Smallholder Party (FKGP). While the historic FKGP had a respectable place in the liberal democratic endeavour in post-1945 Hungary, its reincarnation was an anti-élitist, populist force, notorious throughout the 1990s for its stormy internal relations. In addition, although not part of the government, the radical-nationalist MIÉP – anti-communist, anti-capitalist, anti-liberal, anti-globalist and anti-Semitic, frequently lent its support to the first Orbán government. On the other extreme of the political palette, the radical remnant of the HSWP, the Workers’ Party, openly cherished the heritage of the Kádár era and remained a part of the extra-parliamentary opposition throughout the post-1989 period. Whereas a fairly constant proportion of the electorate has supported a traditional conservative-liberal line with national and Christian commitments, in whichever of the pirouetting parties it appeared at any given election, the values and endeavours of the Socialists also continued to break through until recent elections. On the other hand, those associated with the Liberals fell to a level equal to the radical Right, a picture not very different from some Western European countries.

With regard to European integration, all significant political forces except MIÉP were in favour of it. Although the Council of Europe responded to the Hungarian application as early as November 1990, and Hungary became an associate member in December 1991, the ensuing process was considerably longer than optimistically hoped for. Alongside the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Slovenia, Hungary gained full membership of the European Union on 1 May 2004. By this time, public opinion in the West was increasingly sceptical about both the broadening and deepening of the EU. I have written extensively about Hungary’s more rapid progression into NATO membership elsewhere on this site, but its involvement in peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia, from 1994-1999, undoubtedly aided its process of accession to the EU. In an atmosphere of growing anxiety for global safety, neither the requirements concerning border security nor other developments caused a further postponement.

(to be continued…)


Moments of Régime Change, Budapest (2009): Volt Produkció.

Posted January 2, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Austerity, Austria-Hungary, Balkan Crises, Brussels, Castles, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Communism, Compromise, Conservative Party, democracy, Discourse Analysis, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Europe, European Economic Community, European Union, German Reunification, Germany, Gorbachev, History, Humanism, Humanitarianism, Humanities, Hungarian History, Hungary, Immigration, Integration, Iraq, liberal democracy, liberalism, Marxism, Migration, monetarism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, Population, populism, Poverty, privatization, Proletariat, Racism, Reconciliation, Refugees, Respectability, Revolution, Serbia, Statehood, Uncategorized, Yugoslavia

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Roots of Liberal Democracy, Part Three: Hungary 1956 & 1989/90: Revolution, Reaction & Reform.   1 comment

002The Expropriation of 1956:

Twenty-five years ago, Árpád Göncz (pictured right), then President of the Republic of Hungary and a former prisoner of the Kádár régime, delivered a speech on the anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy in 1958 in which he made the following observation on the 1956 Revolution:

“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.”


Just the use of the noun ‘Revolution’ involves interpretation, which is why some historians still prefer to refer to it as an ‘Uprising’. István Bart places it next to the events of 1848-49 and 1918-19 as, in Hungarian, a ‘forradalom’ (revolution). He defines it in the following terms:

… the bitter, desperate uprising against the Soviet Empire was one of the few events in the history of Hungary that was also of importance to the history of the world as a whole; the euphoric experience of the precious few days of freedom that followed the rapid, overnight collapse of an oppressive régime could never be forgotten, despite the … strict taboo against any mention of it; its defeat left an equally deep mark on the nation’s consciousness, as did the painful realization that Hungary’s fate was decided by the Great Powers, and not by the bloody fighting on the streets of Budapest; none the less, the events that led to the change in régime (>’rendszerváltás’) became irreversible (with every Hungarian citizen realizing this full well) when it was openly declared that what had happened in Hungary in 1956 was a revolution and not a “counter-revolution”.

Margaret Rooke, in her Case Study on The Hungarian Revolt of 1956 (1986), (intriguingly sub-titled János Kádár: traitor or saviour?) attached a glossary in which she defined ‘liberal democratic’ as a form of government in which several parties of both Right and Left compete for power in free elections; freedom of expression, organisation etc. Based on the variety of sources she consulted for this study, she described the government of Imre Nagy in these terms. She also defined the Petöfi Circle as a ‘Liberal and nationalist’ student society, named after the nationalist poet of the 1848 Revolution, Sándor Petöfi. The circle sponsored public debates and became a focal point for discussion within the wider press in Hungary.


In 1972, János Kádár gave a speech to his Communist Party colleagues at his sixtieth birthday celebration in which he addressed the problem of the nomenclature of the events of the autumn of 1956:

In 1956 a grave and critical situation arose, which is called counter-revolution by historians. We know that this is the learned definition of what happened in 1956. But there is also another name for it that we can all accept; it was a national tragedy. A tragedy for the Party, the working-class, for the people as a whole and for individuals as well! It was a wrong turning, and this resulted in tragedy. And if we are now past it – and we can safely say we are – it is a very great thing indeed.  

What Kind of Revolution?:

But we also need to consider the adjectives which are often used to ‘appropriate’ the revolution. Sixty years on, Hungarians can certainly agree with Kádár that it was a national tragedy which needs to be commemorated as such, but as a historical event, if we accept that it was not simply a spontaneous ‘insurrection’,’uprising’ or ‘revolt’, but that it was a revolution, was it a socialist one, or was it liberal or nationalist in its ideological origins?


Imre Nagy became a focal point as both Communist reformers and liberal intellectuals supported him. In April 1955 Nagy had lost power as PM and was expelled from the Hungarian Workers’ Party (Communist Party) in the wake of Khrushchev’s consolidation in Moscow. But following the new Soviet leader’s “secret speech” to the Twentieth Communist Party Congress in February 1956, Hungarian party boss Mátyás Rákosi announced in March that Lászlo Rajk, who had been convicted of spying for the CIA and executed in 1949, would be posthumously exonerated and rehabilitated. At the same time, however, Rákosi forced more collectivisation of agriculture and cracked down on the private sector and the arts.

The US Legation reported that…

… his removal or retirement… would be interpreted… by the general population as a victory for passive resistance.


On 19 June, Rajk’s widow made a speech to the Petöfi Circle in which she made it clear that this conflict could not be resolved except by the latter tendency gaining the upper hand over the hard-liners:

Comrades, there are no words with which to tell you how I feel facing you after cruel years in jail, without a word, … a letter, or a sign of life reaching me from the outside, living in despair and hopelessness. When they took me away, I was nursing my five-month old infant. For five years I had no word of my baby.

You not only killed my husband, but you killed all decency in our country. You destroyed Hungary’s political, economic and moral life. Murderers cannot be rehabilitated. They must be punished!

Where were the members of the Party while these things were happening? How could they allow such degeneration to take place without rising in wrath against the guilty?

Comrades, stand by me in this fight!

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Then the unbelievable happened. Along with the audience, the Communist officials on the rostrum stood and gave the widow a standing ovation. In July, Soviet leaders in Moscow ordered a reorganisation of the HWP, hoping the move would avert an insurrection like the unrest which had flared in Poland the previous month. Rákosi was sacked as Party First Secretary and Ernő Gerő, his long-term hardline accomplice replaced him, while János Kádár, a ‘homegrown’ reformer, became Secretary of the Politburo. Kádár was well-known, first as a tool of Stalinism, then as a victim. To most people, he seemed an ordinary rehabilitated Party bureaucrat, a few steps down from the top, but with a past that did not differ from that of many others. Yet he was both friend and betrayer of Rajk, whom he then helped to frame when he was imprisoned in the 1949 purges. He is reported to have persuaded Rajk to confess to being an ‘imperialist spy’ by telling him:

Of course we all know that you are innocent. … The Party has chosen you for the role of traitor; you must sacrifice yourself for the Party. This is terrible but after all you are an old militant and cannot refuse to help the Party. 

Rajk had been a comparatively ‘nation-minded’ Communist who had been moved from the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before his public destruction. His trial, ‘confession’ to being a Titoist and imperialist spy had been followed by his execution as his wife listened from her own nearby cell. Kádár had also been imprisoned at that time, and his brief moment of notoriety had seemed to be over. But now, with Rákosi’s replacement, Kádár quickly rose to the top of a violently changing and increasingly discontented Communist Party. Its top ranks had melted away around him and he was left almost alone. Gerő was far too closely identified with Rákosi to be able to implement the slow economic and political liberalisation that Moscow hoped for.

In August, the US Legation reported that the Government was making an effort to gain support from Nagy’s adherents within the Party, and from non-Communist elements, and that…

… the basic conflict continues between those wishing to cushion the effect of the Twentieth Congress in Hungary and those wishing to permit a more natural development of ideological thought and practice (within limits).


Nagy was reinstated to the Hungarian Workers’ Party (HWP) at the beginning of October when an estimated 200,000 people demonstrated against Stalinism, inspired by the ceremonial reburial of Lászlo Rajk and other victims of the 1949 purges. Political opposition groups continued to meet in universities in Szeged, Sopron and Budapest, formulating their demands. On 16 and 23 October, two groups of students met and made the first open Hungarian demands for the removal of Soviet troops. Hungarian newspapers covered the meetings and the students continued to meet and organise openly. In his recent article for the Hungarian Review, Gyula Kodolányi has pointed to the evidence that some planning did go into the events which followed. The political police fired into the unarmed crowd at the Hungarian Radio Station on the evening of the 23rd when the demonstrators pressed for the proclamation of the Hungarian youth, with its list of their political demands, to be broadcast. Armed conflict broke out at the block of buildings next to the Radio building. Hungarian troops ordered to the spot by Gerő’s ‘Military Committee’ handed their weapons over to the demonstrators, some of them also participating in the siege of the Radio Station themselves.


At the same time, another huge cheering crowd toppled the enormous Stalin statue in City Park and hauled its several pieces through the centre of the city. With this, the Hungarian Revolution, apparently unplanned and without leaders, had started.  There is some evidence that hard-liners in Moscow and Budapest decided in the summer to ignite a small-scale conflict, in order to finally do away with the Imre Nagy faction of the Party and to teach a lesson to the ‘hot-headed Hungarians’. Kodolányi has concluded from this and other scraps of evidence that:

Provocation was certainly an element in igniting the spirits of Hungarians – but the outcome, an armed revolution that humbled the Soviet Army units stationed in Hungary was certainly not in the calculations of the masterminds of the Kremlin and Gerő. 


As a source for other elements of the 1956 events, Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution is often referred to as a positive appreciation of the 1956 events. She argued that the Revolution itself was not a mere response to probable provocation, but an immense surge of soul and community wisdom in a whole nation, an event that remained unique in modern history.


In search of a political solution, Gerő and his friends brought in Imre Nagy on the night of 23 October to become Prime Minister for a second time. That was certainly unplanned, as Nagy was on holiday at the time and was pathetically out of touch with the situation, addressing the hundreds of thousands waiting to hear him on Kossúth Square in the late evening with “Comrades!” They booed him for this, but Nagy was not yet ready to accept the leadership of a non-Communist Revolution, and certainly not an anti-Soviet one, despite strong pressure from some intellectuals.

Indeed, a report written by Sefton Delmer which appeared in the Daily Express on 24 October emphasised the seemingly ‘orthodox’ nature of the demonstrations on 23 October:

The fantastic, and to my mind, really super-ingenious nature of this national rising against the ‘Hammer and Sickle’, is that it is carried out under the protective red mantle of pretended communist orthodoxy. Gigantic portraits of Lenin are being carried at the head of the marchers. The purged ex-premier Imre Nagy, who only in the last couple of weeks has been re-admitted to the Hungarian Communist Party, is the rebels’ chosen champion and the leader whom they demand must be given charge of a new, free and independent Hungary. Indeed the socialism of this ex-Premier and – this is my bet – Premier soon to be again, is no doubt genuine enough. But the youths in the crowd, to my mind, were in the vast majority as anti-Communist as they were anti-Soviet, that is, if you agree that calling for the removal of the Red Army is anti-Soviet.


In a BBC broadcast made in 1962, the revolutionary refugee Pál Ignotus recalled that…

Even those who feel strongly against the present régime … would all agree that nothing of the sort of the semi-feudalist capitalism of pre-war Hungary … should be restored. Those who sparked off the 1956 Revolution were against the then existing régime, not because they found it too socialist, but because they did not find it genuinely Socialist.

Béla Kovács, minister of agriculture in the Nagy government as a member of the Smallholder Party commented at the time:

No one should dream of going back to the world of aristocrats, bankers and capitalists. That world is definitely gone!

Bob Dent, the Budapest-based writer, having researched all the documents recently published in English on the events of 1956, has supported this view:

The attacks on the Party were attacks on its monopoly of power, not on the ideal of socialism or workers’ power as such. … It is even more difficult to find substantive evidence showing that the overall orientation was towards a capitalist restoration.

On the contrary, Dent has pointed out that the crucial role of factory workers, both in Budapest and in other towns, has been underestimated until  recent research uncovered it:

The first workers’ council to appear was established outside the capital at the … iron and steel works in Diósgyőr in the industrial north-east, … on 22 October, the day before the events are usually regarded as having begun. This and similar bodies represented a form of direct democracy somewhat different from the forms of multi-party parliamentary system and from the classic Soviet-style, one-party system.

He has demonstrated how these councils outlived the crack-down by Kádár’s government and survived the initial repression which destroyed the Revolution elsewhere, on the streets and in the universities. Even Kádár himself, in a radio broadcast on 24 October, before he first joined Nagy’s revolutionary government and then formed his own with Soviet backing, recognised that the Revolution had begun ‘innocently’ enough, but was then taken over by reactionaries:

The demonstration of university youth, which began with the formulation of, on the whole, acceptable demands, has swiftly degenerated into a demonstration against our democratic order; and under cover of this demonstration an armed attack has broken out. It is only with burning anger that we can speak of this attack by counter-revolutionary reactionary elements against the capital of our country …

The fight is being waged chiefly by the most loyal unite of our People’s Army, by members of the internal security forces and police, who are displaying heroic courage, and by former partisans with the help of our brothers and allies, the Soviet soldiers. 

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On the following day, 25th, Ernő Gerő disappeared permanently. Kádár made another radio broadcast announcing that the Politburo had ‘entrusted’ him with the post of First Secretary of the HWP in a grave and difficult situation. He warned that the Nagy Government must conduct negotiations with the Soviet Union in a spirit of complete equality between Hungary and the Soviet Union. Over the next few days, however, with Gerő out-of-the-way, Kádár’s attitude towards the Revolution and the Government seemed to soften considerably, resulting in his joining the multi-party cabinet less than a week later. Meanwhile, Nagy kept reshuffling his government, consulting with the two ‘liberal’ emissaries of the Kremlin, Mikoyan and Suslov, who were in constant transit between Moscow and Budapest. He tried to persuade them that concessions, the admission of the most urgent national demands, would appease the fighters and open a peaceful way out of the conflict.


Turning Points & Days of Change:

Peter Unwin, the British diplomat and envoy in Budapest during the Revolution and Kádár era, and wrote a monograph of Imre Nagy, Voice in the Wilderness (1992). He wrote that of how 28-29 October represented a turning point in Nagy’s thinking, and therefore in the Revolution. On 28th, Nagy made the most significant of his radio broadcasts to date, announcing a ceasefire and the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops from Budapest: negotiations would start about their complete withdrawal from Hungary. As soon as order was restored, the security police would be abolished. Budapest Radio also announced that the Central Committee had approved the declaration promising the end of the one-party system made by the new Hungarian Government. On 29th he fulfilled this later promise with immediate effect. With these measures, he gained attention, closing the gap between the reform communist leadership and the insurgent street-fighters.


On 30 October, it looked as if the Revolution had triumphed. A further announcement confirmed that Kádár and the Central Committee (Politburo) of the Hungarian Workers’ Party had backed the cabinet’s decision to abolish the one-party system and to place the country’s government on the basis of democratic cooperation between coalition parties as they existed in 1945. This effectively meant a return to multi-party free elections. Under these terms, Kádár became an ex-officio member of Nagy’s Government. On the 30th, Mikoyan and Suslov spent the whole day in Budapest, and when they left Budapest to return to Moscow, according to Unwin, they remained committed to supporting Nagy’s interim government and its decision to concede a more multi-party government.

Therefore, breaking with the confines of a reform communist programme, Nagy had embraced the multi-party system. The Soviet-backed Government had at first sent tanks in, then yielded and prepared to allow some freedom to the Hungarian people, within the limits of the one-party state. But Hungarians of all classes had had enough. These limits were precisely what they wanted to get rid of. The continuing disturbances and the distribution of leaflets calling for a multi-party system drove Nagy to swing away from an exclusively Communist state and to break all the guarantees of Russian security within the Warsaw Pact. “Russians go home!” was the universal cry. Kádár also had to echo it, but this was just what the Russians dared not do, and the dramatic reversal of the Kremlin’s behaviour took place on that night as the Soviet envoys were flying home.


By the time Mikoyan and Suslov arrived in Moscow, the balance in the Politburo had already tipped towards the hardliners and the Army leaders who clamoured for revenge for their humiliating losses on the streets of Budapest. Unwin summed up that it was decided that the Hungarian Revolution must be destroyed by force. It may also have been thought that Nagy could be detached from the revolutionary leaders and perhaps even put in charge of an administration that would follow Soviet orders. As it turned out, the man who could be detached was János Kádár. Imre Nagy did not move when he heard the news of new troops pouring into the country from 30 October, and began his journey towards martyrdom.

Also on 30 October, Cardinal Mindszenty was released from his life imprisonment, which had begun in December 1948. He had been badly treated while in custody. In his own account, he said that his guards had a meeting and decided to leave their watch duties, leaving him free. The following morning, he was escorted by armed civilian units to his residence in Buda’s Castle District. A crowd of well-wishers and journalists was waiting outside the building, where the Hungarian tricolour and the papal colours were flying. Although both American magazine reports and the records of the Kádár régime claim that the cardinal blessed the weapons of the freedom fighters and called for foreign intervention, the mainstream Hungarian newspapers that covered the cardinal’s arrival in detail reported no details of a statement of this kind. They simply stated that Mindszenty gave a few words of greeting to the crowd from the balcony. In his own memoirs, he said that he blessed the kneeling crowds and then entered the building he had not seen for years. He showed that he didn’t approve of the idea, expressed in slogans painted on the streets calling for a “Mindszenty government”.


The following day, 1 November, Mindszenty made it clear that he had called for the formation of a Christian Democratic Party as his price for supporting the Nagy Government. The same day he released a short press statement, broadcast on the radio, in which he said that he felt “no hatred in his heart” after his years of imprisonment. Calling the “struggle for freedom” which had taken place “unparalleled in world history”, he greeted the Hungarian youth and called for prayers for the victims. Two days later, on 3 November, the primate held a press conference at his residence in the morning before making his famous live radio broadcast that evening. In the press conference, he made it clear, to the point of irritation, that he had no intention of heading a government. However, different people interpreted his radio address in differing ways. The ‘official’ view of the Kádár régime, established the next day, was that was that Mindszenty’s radio address was a clear-cut expression of reaction and counter-revolution. János Bercz, in a work published in English at the end of the era, thirty years later, still felt able to write that in the speech Mindszenty presented his programme for the restoration of capitalism, though he didn’t quote anything from it as supporting evidence of this assertion. What Mindszenty actually said, at least according to his own memoirs, was:

“We desire to live in friendship with every people and with every country. … The old-fashioned nationalism must be revalued (‘re-evaluated?’) everywhere. … we give the Russian empire no cause for bloodshed. … We have not attacked Russia and sincerely hope that the withdrawal of Russian military force from our country will soon occur.”

After calling for a general return to work, echoing the Nagy Government, he stated that the uprising was “not a revolution, but a fight for freedom”. The post-1948 régime had been forced on the country, he said, but now had been swept away by the entire Hungarian people…

“because the nation wanted to decide freely on how it should live. It wants to be free to decide about the management of its state and the use of its labour.”

Declaring his own independence from any party, the cardinal called for fresh elections under international control in which every party would be free to nominate. But then he immediately warned everyone not to give way to internecine struggle, even adding that the country needed “as few parties and party leaders as possible”. On political and social matters in general, he affirmed that Hungary was…

“… a constitutional state, in a society without classes and … democratic achievements. We are for private property rightly and justly limited by social interests … we do not oppose the direction of former progress.

As for church matters, Mindszenty called for the immediate granting of Christian religious instruction the restoration of the institutions and associations of the Catholic Church. Towards the end of his broadcast, he asserted that what he had said was “clear and sufficient”. However, for many, it was neither clear nor sufficient. On the question of the return of church lands, for example, in his memoirs, he tried to clarify that he had meant that would be no opposition to the state of affairs which has already been proven right by the course of history, yet this addendum was far from clear either. The speech itself greatly disturbed some supporters of the Nagy government, especially his characterisation of it as “the successors of a fallen régime”. They suspected that he would like to see the government fall too, or at least the communist elements in it. If they suspected that at the time, it is hardly surprising that his words could so easily be misinterpreted and twisted by Kádár’s supporters in the days and years that followed.

Meanwhile, on 1 November, the radio had announced that the revolution had been declared a success, having shaken off the Rákosi régime and achieved freedom for the people and independence for the country. Significantly, it added that without this there can be no socialism and that the ideological and organisational leaders who prepared this uprising were recruited from a range of Communist writers, journalists, university students and members of the Petöfi Circle, as well as from thousands of workers, peasants and political prisoners. The foundation of the new Hungarian Workers’ Party was being established by János Kádár, and the announcement went on to declare that:

Either the Hungarian democratic parties will have enough strength to stabilize our achievements or we must face an open counter-revolution.

The same day, Kádár gave an interview to an Italian journalist, who asked him what type of communism he represented. His reply was: the new type, which emerged from the Revolution and which does not want anything in common with the Communism of the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő group. Asked if it had anything in common with the Yugoslav or Polish type, he responded…

“… our Communism is Hungarian. It is a sort of “third line” with no connection to Titoism or to Gomulka’s Communism. It is Marxism-Leninism, adapted to the particular requirements of our country, to our difficulties and to our national problem. It is not inspired by the USSR nor by any other type of Communism, … it is Hungarian National Communism.”

As to whether this form of Communism would be developed along democratic lines, Kádár assured his interlocutor that there would be no dictatorship and that the opposition would be heard because it would have the national interests of Hungary at heart and not those of international Communism. A further brief announcement was made later the same day, by Nagy himself, informing the Hungarian population that the new government had renounced the Warsaw Pact. Apparently, in the meeting which decided on the withdrawal, Kádár had dramatically offered to fight the Russians with his ‘bare hands’. After the meeting, however, Kádár suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from Budapest. Up until that point, he had seemed to be in favour of the dramatic swing towards Hungary becoming a pluralistic, democratic state.

Nagy continued to negotiate with the democratic coalition parties on the composition of a new representative government, and with representatives of various social groups and revolutionary councils bent on establishing a new order, while General Béla Király united and consolidated the insurgent forces in a newly created National Guard. The following day, the 2nd, Nagy announced that his new government included three Smallholder members, three Social Democrats, two National Peasant Party and two Communist Party ministers, thus resembling the cabinet which resulted from the November 1945 free elections. Pál Maléter was named Minister of Defence, quickly re-establishing control of the streets. The new government was announced on the radio on the 3rd. That day, Hungary became a liberal democracy again for the first time since 1948, but it was to last only until the next morning.


Operation Whirlwind – The Empire Strikes Back:

At dawn on Sunday 4 November, Soviet forces started Operation Whirlwind, a general attack on the country and its capital, with an armoured force bigger than that of the Red Army which ‘liberated’ Budapest from Nazi occupation in 1944 and more troops than those of the Nazis who occupied Paris in 1940. The invasion marked the beginning of the end of the Revolution, almost as soon as it had succeeded. The announcement of Kádár’s new Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government was made later that same day from the Soviet-Hungarian border:

“… Exploiting mistakes committed during the building of our people’s democratic system, the reactionary elements have misled many honest workers, and in particular the major part of our youth, which joined the movement out of honest and patriotic intentions …

The Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government, acting in the interest of our people … requested the Soviet Army Command to help our nation smash the sinister forces of reaction and restore order and calm in the country.”

I have given more detailed accounts of these events in a series of articles elsewhere on this site. Here, I am more concerned to establish the extent to which the leadership of the Revolution was either non-Communist or anti-Communist. However, the life of the Hungarian Revolution had just blossomed in that fateful moment. Over the following months, the revolutionaries tried all forms of armed and peaceful resistance, of tough negotiation, of demonstrations and protest against the Kádár régime that only slowly consolidated itself by the spring of 1957. As Kodalányi commented:

The life of the revolution blossomed out in all of us Hungarians who lived through it, and in everyone in the wide world who sensed its essence together with us. A flower of spiritual life that would not fade.

One of the earliest accounts of the Revolution, The Tragedy of Central Europe, written by Stephen Borsody in 1960 (revised in 1980), summarised what happened next and how the Soviet leaders justified their action:

Upon reconquering Hungary, the Soviets installed a puppet government under János Kádár, a renegade national Communist, and re-instituted a rule of terror reminiscent of the Stalin era. To justify their bloody deed, the Soviet leaders branded the Hungarian Revolution as a ‘counter-revolution’ launched by ‘Western imperialist circles’ and led by Horthyite Fascists and aristocrats.

Contrary to this ‘branding’, writing in 1977, Domokos Szent-Iványi, one of those ‘liberal’ aristocrats, claimed that he had actually succeeded in preventing the clandestine Hungarian Independence Movement (MFM) from taking part in the Revolution. This was important to him because the pro-Rákosi Communist Party and Press had already shown their determination to put the “blame on ex-prisoners”, in particular on the so-called “Conspirators” for the fighting in Budapest and the country. Even the secret police, the ÁVH had to admit that none of the ‘Conspirators’ had actively participated. The ‘provocations’ of the Rákosi-Hegedüs-Gerő gang greatly contributed to the success of the Kádár régime in this respect, he claimed. The last meeting of a group of eight of them had taken place on 3 November, the date on which Nagy’s Government was announced, along with the declaration of neutrality. At the meeting, Szent-Iványi had outlined the current situation as he viewed it, and gave his opinion about coming events. Many of the leading members, including István Szent-Miklósy, former Major of the General Staff, and László Veress, former diplomat and press officer for the Prime Minister’s Office during the war, left Hungary within a few days of the Soviet invasion on 4 November. Clearly, the Hungarian Independence Movement, the remnant of the aristocratic Horthyite ‘liberals’, did not play a major role in the events of 1956, and deliberately so. Albeit with the benefit of hindsight, Szent-Iványi concluded that…

… As in the past… Hungary was once more abandoned in 1956 by the West Powers which believed that their interests had to be defeated around the borders of Suez and Israel and not on the Eastern bulwark of European Civilization. … Hungary must… try to arrive at some peaceful settlement and cooperation with her most powerful eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union.


Before the Soviet takeover, on the 2nd, Anna Kéthely (pictured right), President of the hurriedly reorganised Social Democratic Party, had become Minister of State in Imre Nagy’s government. Two days later, she was in Vienna attending a meeting of the Socialist International when the Soviet invasion of Hungary began. Unable to return to Hungary without facing certain imprisonment, she was given the mission by the Nagy Government of protesting to the United Nations. She testified against the invasion at the UN’s HQ in New York on 30 January 1957, as shown in the picture.

By then, of course, Nagy was a prisoner of the Soviets, tricked into leaving the Yugoslav Embassy on 22 November, where he and many members of his government had been taking refuge since the 4th, before being transported to Romania. Kéthely told the UN that she could not believe that he would have accepted his part voluntarily. Protests were made from throughout the world in the period 1956-58. In a letter to the editor of Pravda, written in January 1957, members of the British Parliamentary Labour Party, including Barbara Castle and Tony Benn, questioned the Soviet Government’s justification for its intervention in Hungary as it had appeared in the newspaper:

… your newspaper has portrayed the Hungarian uprising as ‘counter-revolutionary’. May we ask exactly what is meant by this expression? Does it include all systems of government which permit political parties whose programmes are opposed to that of the Communist Party? If, for example, the Hungarian people were to choose a parliamentary system similar to those in Finland or Sweden, would you regard that as counter-revolutionary?

you have said that the Hungarian uprising was planned long in advance by the West and you have in particular blamed Radio Free Europe. Are you seriously suggesting that masses of Hungarian workers and peasants were led by these means into organising mass strikes aimed at restoring the power of feudal landlords and capitalists?

The philosopher Albert Camus was ostracised by Jean Paul-Sartre and his friends for his unflinching condemnation of Soviet aggression and of the West’s moral and political failure to do what could have been done on behalf of the revolutionaries and the country. In her detailed analysis of the Hungarian Revolution, Origins of Totalitarianism, recorded in 1957, the ‘libertarian socialist’ Hannah Arendt wrote:

This was a true event whose stature will not depend on victory or defeat: its greatness is secure in the tragedy it enacted. What happened in Hungary happened nowhere else, and the twelve days of the revolution contained more history than the twelve years since the Red Army had ‘liberated’ the country from Nazi domination.

Freedom and Truth – The Libertarian Legacy of 1956:

Arendt marvelled at the way in which the Revolution was initiated by the prime objects of indoctrination, ‘the over-privileged’ of the Communist system: intellectuals of the left, university students, and workers, the Communist ‘avant-garde’:

Their motive was neither their own nor their fellow-citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth. …an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable, that nihilism will be futile, that … a yearning for freedom and truth will rise out of man’s heart and mind forever.

In the same spirit of optimism, she also reflected on how, ever since the European revolutions of 1848, a new order was immediately created by a freely convened gathering of citizens. The wonder of the restrained and resourceful operation of Hungary’s spontaneously formed revolutionary and workers’ councils, already referred to above, was one of the great social achievements of the Revolution of 1956. Although by their own admission, there was no direct involvement of the ‘centrist’ liberals in initiating the events of 1956, there was an unmistakable historical thread running through from the reform movements of the 1930s to the clandestine anti-Nazi resistance of 1944, to the democratic parties of the reconstruction between 1945 to 1948 and, with the memory of 1956 in their minds, to the new liberal democracy of 1989-90, despite the stupefying thirty years of János Kádár’s ‘liberal’ socialism. Arendt also observed as a unique trait of the Hungarian Revolution the unanimity of the nation in the spirit of the uprising:

 The amazing thing about the Hungarian revolution is that there was no civil war. For the Hungarian Army disintegrated in hours and the dictatorship was stripped of all power in a couple of days. No group, no class in the nation opposed the will of the people once it had become known and its voice had been heard in the market place. For the members of the ÁVH, who remained loyal to the end, formed neither group nor class, the lower echelons having been recruited from the dregs of the population: criminals, nazi agents, highly compromised members of the Hungarian fascist party, the higher ranks being composed of Moscow agents, Hungarians with Russian citizenship under the orders of NKVD officers.

Echoing the United Nations Special Report of the same year, 1957, this analysis carries weight because of the widely acknowledged integrity of its author. It carries a special significance because of the Soviet propaganda, also spouted by the Kádár régime, which from its very beginning branded the events as a rebellion of fascists, anti-Semites, reactionaries and imperialists.

Nagy was eventually executed, along with Pál Maleter and Miklós Gimes, on the orders of the Russians in 1958 to appease the hard-line Chinese. In his last speech to the Court, on 14 June, Imre Nagy was determined to demonstrate his reasons for backing and then leading the Revolution:

“Twice I tried to save the honour of the word ‘socialism’ in the Danube River valley: in 1953 and 1956. The first time, I was thwarted by Rákosi, the second time by the armed might of the Soviet Union. Now I must give my life for my ideas. I give it willingly. After what you have done with it, it’s not worth anything any more. I know that History will condemn my assassins. There is only one thing that would disgust me: if my name were rehabilitated by those who killed me.” 


Margaret Rooke concluded that the Revolution represented a huge swing of the political pendulum. For ten years the hand had been held by force at the extreme of Rákosi’s one-party rule, directed by the Soviet Communist Party. Suddenly it was released and immediately it swung back through the various stages of Communism past the vital point of permitting other parties to function. But when it swung up in the direction opposite to Communism, from multi-party social democracy, through social democracy to liberal democracy, that was a swing too far for the Soviet system to accommodate. The hand was stopped and then made to swing back, not being allowed to swing again for another thirty years and more. The immediate aftermath of the Revolt was repression. The writers, whose onslaught had fatally undermined Rákosi, were almost silenced. Cardinal Mindszenty, the Catholic primate, was compelled to seek asylum in the US Embassy. In 1958, the year of the trial and executions of Imre Nagy and Pál Maleter, the exile Tibor Meray wrote Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin, commemorating Nagy’s life and death, in which he observed:

To say that Hungary’s history had never known a leadership more thoroughly detested than this ‘Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Government’ would be in no way an exaggeration … Little by little the rule of the Rákosi-Gerő clique was restored … The activities of Kádár Government soon gave the lie to the glowing promises with which it assumed power.

001However, there was virtually no Communist Party with which Kádár could run the country; it had sunk in numbers from 900,000 to 96,000, most of them being Stalinists and/or careerists hated by their fellow Hungarians, who were therefore unreliable supporters of Kádár. After 1961, he could afford to relax rigid controls, and although collectivisation was eventually insisted on, the collective farms were more like state-controlled co-operatives, with working shareholders running them. Entrance to university was no longer confined to the children of workers, peasant and Communist intellectuals. George Lukács, the country’s greatest philosopher, was again allowed to publish his works. An agreement with the Churches, to which sixty per cent of the population belonged, was reached. An amnesty was declared for all 1956 refugees. In 1962, George Páloczi-Horváth, an exile from 1956, broadcast this on the BBC:

When we were marching on that revolutionary protest march, if anyone had told us that in five or six years life would be in Hungary as it is now, we would have been very pleased, because it would have accomplished a great deal, if not everything we wanted to achieve.


In 1968 the New Economic Mechanism officially introduced private incentive and individual enterprise into the economy. A degree of pluralism was re-introduced when trade unions were given more power and non-Party candidates were allowed to stand in parliamentary elections. However, only the Communist-dominated Fatherland Front was allowed to exist. But 1968 also showed the realities of power under the layers of growing prosperity and individual freedom. Hungary was compelled to send some its forces to Czechoslovakia in support of the Soviet intervention there against Dubcek’s liberalisation (see the picture below).

The cage may have been made more comfortable, but the bars were still there and the keeper kept his eyes open. In the 1970s, Hungary enjoyed a massive rise in living standards. The new co-operatives made peasants’ incomes higher than workers’ ones. Hungary had ‘weekend cottage socialism’.



In a material sense, and in terms of the personal and national autonomy of Hungarians, Kádár had succeeded, even if at the expense of the alleged results of prosperity – apathy, lack of high ideals, money-grubbing and high rates of divorce, abortion and suicide. In 1974, William Shawcross wrote Crime and Compromise, in which he summed up Kádár’s position in Hungary:

Out of the rubble of the Revolution which he himself had razed, he has somehow managed to construct one of the most reasonable, sane and efficient Communist states in the world. Hungarians now speak, not only ironically, of their country as the ‘gayest barracks in the Socialist camp’ and praise Kádár for making it so. … Hungary today is personified by Kádár and many Hungarians are convinced that without him their country would be a very different and probably far worse place to live.

Writing in 1977, Domokos Szent-Ivanyi commented that…

… from 1956, the Kádar régime was able to win the confidence both of the Hungarian people and of the Soviet Union and has brought peace to the country and its inhabitants.

Nevertheless, for many intellectuals, the continuing limitations on freedom of speech and action reminded them that there were still taboos in place. The first of these concerned Hungary’s links with the Soviets and foreign policy questions itself. It was generally well-known that it was Nagy’s announcement on Hungary’s neutrality, detailed above, that had changed the stakes in the Revolution itself, rather than the previous announcement of a multi-party government and promise of free elections. Secondly, it was forbidden to criticise the armed forces in any way, as well as the judiciary and the internal security organs. Thirdly, it was not permitted to criticise any living individual by name. The reason for this was the need for ‘cadre responsibility’ so that no-one needed to worry about being attacked from outside the Party. Fourthly, certain facts and subjects could not be subjected to sharp criticisms. These could be made in anecdotes, satire or by means of technical analysis, but not in a direct, radical manner.


In October 1981, Gordon Brook-Shepherd wrote an article for the Sunday Telegraph in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Revolt. He travelled beyond Budapest to hear survivors from a feudal world … declare that, although Communists were all atheists, Kádár himself was ‘a good man’. Moreover, things were better then than they used to be, This verdict came from a family who had made their daughter break off her engagement to a purely because the fiancé was the son of a local party boss. Brook-Shepherd found that for many ‘ordinary’ Hungarians, much of the ‘fine talk’ about ‘freedom’ was an irrelevance:

Freedom for them today is defined as a weekend house, a better apartment in the city, a shorter wait for a better car, more frequent foreign travel and for the intellectuals (as one of them put it to me), ‘the privilege to go on censuring ourselves’. If you do not get what you like, you eventually like what you get. 


In 1986, the English Language version of Sándor Kopácsi’s In the Name of the Working Class was published in Toronto. As Budapest’s Chief of Police, Kopácsi was ordered to suppress the uprising, but the former Communist partisan defied the Stalinist authorities and then joined the Revolution under Imre Nagy. He was given a sentence of life imprisonment by the same Court which sentenced Nagy, Maléter and Gimes to hang. Kopácsi’s book makes it evident that the Revolution was initially a Communist uprising, as other sources quoted here suggest, begun not to deny but to fulfil what its participants believed to be true Marxist-Leninist ideas. But in his 1986 Foreward, George Jonas admitted that…

It is hard to say whether originators of the uprising realized at the time that events might carry political reform in Hungary much further, not in the direction of ‘fascism’ – this was simply not on the cards in 1956 – but in the direction of liberal democracy. It is hard to say whether the reformists considered at the time (as the Kremlin certainly did) that if the revolution succeeded Hungary could end up as a genuinely non-aligned parliamentary democracy whose freely elected governments might include no Marxist parties at all.

In fact, even János Kádár, according to a broadcast on Budapest Radio on 15 November 1956, had admitted that, while his Government hoped to regain the confidence of the people, it had to take into account the possibility that we might be thoroughly beaten at the election. Of course, that election was never held because Khrushchev and the Politburo saw ‘democratic Communism’ as a contradiction in terms. They knew, as did Kádár, that Communism and real political freedom were not compatible for the simple reason that, if free to choose, the people in European countries such as Hungary, were not likely to choose Communism. The Soviet leaders were not willing to risk this, nor even an independent Communist régime. One Tito was quite enough, as far as they were concerned. Idealist reform-communists like Imre Nagy identified the dangers differently. They argued that a thaw in the icy grip of the Soviet Union was necessary to avoid a complete popular rejection of the Communist model. Nagy and his collaborators supported the Uprising in Hungary in order prevent one. As Jonas points out:

Nagy and his followers wanted to rescue the system. They believed that allowing events to take their course, following the clear desires of the Hungarian students, workers, soldiers and intellectuals was the best way to rescue it. They also hoped that the Soviet Union might permit this to happen. They were probably wrong in their first belief and undoubtedly wrong in their second. 

In our century the cause of the Marxist-Leninist state – unlike fascism or other totalitarian movements – succeeded in attracting many humane and intelligent people such as Colonel Kopácsi or Imre Nagy. In a sense, therein lies the tragedy of Communism; in a sense, therein lies its danger…

On 23 October 1988, we heard an announcement by the HSWP that the events of 1956 were no longer to be viewed as a ‘counter-revolution’. The following spring, a commission of historians agreed that the term, ‘people’s uprising’ was appropriate, and this was a signal factor in sparking the series of ‘liberalisations’ which followed in 1989. Bob Dent has commented on the connections between the events of 1956 and those of 1989:

… there were overlaps between the goals of 1956 and 1989-90: the idea of national independence, the demand for a multi-party system, a free press and the end of all forms of dictatorship. But … in some significant respects, 1989-90 … was simultaneously both more and less than 1956. … it involved elements not present thirty-three years previously and omitted others which were.


Authors have rarely reflected deeply themselves on Hannah Arendt’s comments about the ‘direct democracy’ of the workers’ councils as being at the core of what was positive. Bob Dent has pointed out that:

For ‘the West’, the workers’ councils did not fit neatly into any ‘acceptable’ category. In so far as they were ‘anti-Soviet’ or ‘anti-communist’, or perceived as such, that was fine. If they were in favour of liberal reforms such as the introduction of free speech, a multi-party system and parliamentary elections, that was also fine. But it was not quite ‘acceptable’ if they were, as they actually were, ‘anti-capitalist’ and ‘pro-socialist’, even ‘revolutionary’ in the sense that they were firmly in favour of maintaining social ownership of property and putting it under workers’ management. … The Hungarian workers’ councils have been neatly described as ‘anti-Soviet soviets’, and for many that apparently contradictory notion has not been easy to digest, neither in post-1989 Hungary nor indeed elsewhere – therefore easiest, perhaps, to ignore them.


On the other hand, the events of 1989-90 clearly went far beyond those of 1956 in the popular desire to accelerate privatisation and develop a free-market economy. Ideas of ‘rejoining Europe’ in 1989 were not part of the objectives of 1956, nor was the idea of joining NATO – the demand in 1956 was simply for neutrality, but at that time it proved to be an impossible demand. But Gyula Kodolányi, as Senior Adviser to the first freely elected Prime Minister of Hungary in 1990, József Antall, heard the democratic legacy of 1956 frequently referred to by leaders such as Chancellor Kohl, President Chirac and President Havel: the Hungarian Revolution of that year had made an indelible mark in their political development. They immediately trusted the reformers of 1989-90 as inheritors of that tradition, and that aura made a favourable climate which made the process of Hungary’s return to Europe a matter of continuing the course set in 1956. Thus, the achievements of that autumn formed a ‘spiritual constellation’ which guaranteed the régime change of the later years, not just in Hungarian hearts and minds, symbolised by the reburial of its ‘martyrs’, but in international relations too. In 1989-90, world leaders recognised the significance of the Revolutions of that year because of their own initiation into the idea of freedom by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.



Bob Dent (2006), Budapest 1956: Locations of Drama. Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó.

Bob Dent (2008), Inside Hungary from Outside. Budapest: Európa Könvkiadó.

Margaret Rooke (1986), The Hungarian Revolt of 1956: János Kádár – traitor or saviour? York: Longman Group.

Sándor Kopácsi (1986) (Translated by Daniel & Judy Stoffman, with a foreword by George Jonas), In the Name of the Working Class. Toronto & London: Fontana.

Marc J Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: US Department of State Bureau of Public Affairs.

István Bart (1999), Hungary & The Hungarians: The Keywords – a Concise Dictionary of Facts and Beliefs, Customs, Usage & Myths. Budapest: Corvina.

Gyula Kodolányi (2016), ‘ “With Nine Million Fascists” – On the Origins and Spirit of the Hungarian Revolution’ in Hungarian Review, Vol. VII, No. 6, November 2016. Budapest: György Granasztói/ Danube Institute.


Posted December 22, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Semitism, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Co-operativism, Cold War, Colonisation, Communism, Compromise, democracy, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Factories, Family, Humanism, Humanitarianism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Journalism, Labour Party, liberal democracy, liberalism, Medieval, Militancy, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, privatization, Proletariat, Reconciliation, Refugees, Revolution, Statehood, Trade Unionism, Warfare, Welfare State, Yugoslavia

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


1966-1989: Kádár and the Counter-revolutionaries: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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