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Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Three; The Crucible, 1953-56.   1 comment

Family days and Events in the Fifties… 

Family days in Tom’s extended family had started before the war as enjoyable social events, but increasingly became times for sharing anxiety and problems caused by increasing persecution of Jews. After the holocaust, they then became a means of rebuilding a strong sense of family of those  who survived.  During the dark years of the communist era these family get-togethers were a time of mutual support, of sharing problems and giving advice, of debating the subtle political changes in the regime and generating some hope amidst the gloom. These events in extended Hungarian families continued throughout the Kádár era and even into the transition period which followed the collapse of communism in 1989-91. Tom’s direct memories were of the gatherings of the early to mid 1950s:

Everyone tried to make sure that we children had a good time, with special cakes and sweets, usually made by great-aunt Manci, my grandmother’s younger sister. We played games, while the adults were deep in conversation. The oldest of us was my second cousin Éva, two years older than me. I was next in age, my three cousins Jani, Andi and Juli (all children of my aunt Juci) were all younger as was my second cousin Kati. Her sister Marika and my other two second cousins András and Isti were all born in the early 50s. Éva made up some exciting ‘murder in the dark’ type of games, which involved hiding in cupboards and getting into some mischief.

There were occasional raised voices. It was often Éva’s mother Magda who was in some trouble. Like my mother, she had lost her husband in the holocaust in one of the ‘death marches’ and she never regained any kind of equilibrium. Her life seemed to go from one crisis to another. My grandfather Ármin (who was generally regarded as the ‘head of the family’) was always ready with advice, which Magda was not ready to receive. It was often my great-uncle Feri (Ármin’s younger brother) whose mild-mannered voice acted to mediate and bring calm to the proceedings. He was a much respected architect whose advice was sought by many.  Workplace problems were discussed, ways of getting round food shortages, childcare issues and, of course, politics. Most of the family were generally inclined to be liberal and tending towards socialist ideas, which dominated amongst the Jewish middle class.

Anti-semitism was generally linked to the old right-wing nationalism and the horrors of the holocaust were inflicted by the fascists. The Soviet Red Army, while bringing its own atrocities in some areas, meant liberation for the remnants of our family. So there was initially a lot of tolerance towards the proclaimed aims of the communist regime. The disillusion and the realisation of the total loss of freedom and the fear brought by the dictatorship of the Rákosi era dawned on members of the family at different rates.

Following the ‘turning point’ year of 1949, it only remained for the Hungarian Communists to apply some cosmetic surgery on the face of the Stalinist system to invest their de facto rule with a thin gloss of constitutionality. The rumps of the remaining parties, largely consisting of Communist fellow-travellers, merged with the Hungarian Workers’ Party (MDP) in the Hungarian Independence-Popular Front and undertook to submit to the decisions of its national board led by Rákosi as President, Dobi and Erdei as deputies and Rajk as General Secretary. They also pledged themselves to the leading role of the  MDP in the construction of socialism. Those who espoused alternative programmes were denounced as enemies of the Hungarian people, rather than being seen as any sort of ‘loyal opposition’. Predictably, on 15 May, 96 per cent of the electors voted for the candidates of the Popular Front, of whom more than seventy per cent were communists.

Shortly after the creation of the Popular Front, organised opponents of monolithic communist rule either evaporated or were forced into compliance through general repression. Within a week, the Democratic People’s Party dissolved itself and Cardinal Mindszenty was brought to court on fabricated charges of espionage and subversion. Having struck at the two pillars of the Catholic Church, landed property and youth education, the Communists had, early on, evoked the wrath of the militant prelate who was determined not only to defend religious liberty but also to preserve many of the Church’s anachronistic privileges. Now they turned on him as the head of what they termed the clerical reaction of 1947-49. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on the basis of an extorted confession. Despite this, there was no break in the adherence of ordinary Catholics to their Church, but its power to openly resist did decline sharply decline, as became evident on 5 September 1949 obligatory religious instruction was abolished, and circumstances were made unfavourable for parents sending their children to optional classes. By 1952, only a quarter of elementary school pupils took them.

Religion was rarely discussed in the extended Leimdörfer family, either, as it was such a sensitive subject among many surviving Jewish families. Most of the family remained Jewish, but only practised at the time of festivals, while Edit (Tom’s mother), aunt Juci and her husband Gyuri became committed Christians in the Reformed (Calvinist) Church following their conversion. Tom recalls his mother’s distress over the recurring rift this decision had created in the family:

The only time I saw my mother in tears at a family day was when her right to bring me up as a Christian was being questioned. It was my grandmother Sári who smoothed out that particular row. Although we might have been playing, Éva and I heard what was going on in the adult conversation. Occasionally, when they noticed us listening, the conversation would switch to German. All the adults spoke fluent German, but only ever used it in these circumstances.

One of Tom’s more distant relatives had been in the French resistance during the war (having been a student at Grenoble university) and was the only one of the family who was actually a member of the Communist Party. As a sideline from his office job, he made up a game called Five Year Plan, which became available in the shops to replace the banned Capitali (a Hungarian version of Monopoly). As a ‘western communist’ he was, no doubt, in just as much danger from the secret police and the ‘Muscovites’ who were leading the party, as were the other members of the family. Even the seventy-one member Central Committee of the party was dwarfed in its significance by the Political Committee which met every week; even within this body, the ‘Muscovites’ formed an ‘inner circle’ within which the ‘triumvirate’ of Rákosi, Gerő and Farkas reigned supreme, with Rákosi surrounded by a personality cult second only in its dimensions, within the Communist bloc, to that of Stalin himself.

If any complex financial questions arose, the family turned to Pali (Hédi’s father, my grandmother’s younger brother) who was an accountant. Pali had another daughter, Márti, who had Down’s syndrome. She was a much-loved and nurtured member of the family:

We children adored her as she always played with us and always had a warm smile and a hug for us. She joined in with our games and clearly enjoyed playing with our toys. She was well-known in her neighbourhood and could do some shopping for her parents as well as helping at home. Márti was not the only member of the family with a disability. My young second cousin Kati had a genetic disorder resulting in very restricted growth and associated mobility problems in later life. However, she was bright, always even-tempered, went through mainstream school and university, took a doctorate and became a very competent and respected accountant.

Sixteen members of the extended family had died in the holocaust, but those who survived remained close to each other through thick and thin, notwithstanding any strains of religious, economic, political or philosophical differences. The dark years were hard for everyone, but when anyone was in acute hardship, there was always help. If things got difficult at home for anyone, there was always a listening ear. Tom recalls an occasion when, aged about nine, he ran away from home:

I forget the reason, but Mami and I had a row and she took to her periodic silent phase. I took the 49 tram, then changed to the 11 and arrived at my aunt Juci and uncle Gyuri’s flat. The adults had a quiet word, decided I might as well stay the night, play with my cousins, and start next day as if nothing had happened. It worked, I guess we just needed some ’space’ from each other. Juci and Gyuri’s home was a lovely flat and I always liked going there. They were always very busy, both working full-time and with three young children, but they always had time for me. Jani, Andi and Juli liked having me around and regarded me as an older brother. Their paternal grandmother, Ilonka mama, lived with them, helped with household chores and quietly fussed around us. Feeling at home in their family in Budapest laid the foundation for my crucial years as a teenage orphan in London, but surrounded by a loving family.

In the period after the war, throughout the 1940s and even through to 1956, the cultural scene in Budapest remained vibrant, with a vigorous and colourful press at first, in which all the trends that survived the war-time crucible represented themselves with excellent periodicals. There were renowned musical and theatrical performances and a host of films which represented the highest standards of international cinematography. For Tom, this creative atmosphere was a central part of his upbringing:

Music was very important in our lives. It was my mother’s great source of comfort and it became one of the strongest bonds between us, though occasionally also a source of strain. I grew up listening to classical music on the radio and started going to concerts, the opera and the ballet at an early age. Tickets were cheap for everyone and sometimes even free for us, once Mami started to work for the Hungarian Philharmonia, the state bureau which organised all major musical events in the country and distributed all tickets. Its offices were just opposite the sumptuous classical building of the Opera House.

My parents were concert goers during their courtship and the short married life they had together before the war tore them apart. Mami now just had me and she started taking me to concerts and the opera at what might be considered a very early age. Works deemed suitable for children, like Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ ballet, Massine’s ‘La Boutique Fantastique’,  and Engelbert Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ I saw before the age of six. I was not yet eight when I saw ‘Carmen’ at the Opera in a mesmerising performance…  Apart from the two opera houses of the capital (the classical Opera House and the more modern Erkel Theatre), there were outdoor performances in the summer. The outdoor theatre was near the zoo and occasionally a hapless tenor or soprano had to compete with some noisy peacocks or other nocturnally vocal animals.

There were a lot of excellent Hungarian musicians of international renown, who were not able to travel to the west. With visiting artists from the other communist countries, the quality of performances was always high… After Stalin’s death, when the regime became relatively less repressive, the first western artist to visit was the great Yehudi Menuhin. He played both the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn violin concertos in the same concert, one each side of the interval. Mami managed to get three tickets. She and her best friend Gitta (my friend Dani’s mother) were both looking forward to the concert as a high point of the year. Dani and I were to share the third ticket. He played the violin, so he had first choice and chose the Beethoven (which is longer). I was satisfied, because the Mendelssohn was my favourite, having been told that it had been one of my father’s best loved pieces of music. In any case, we could each listen to the other half outside the door. It was a magical performance and the four of us talked about nothing else for weeks.

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Tom, all dressed up for a night at the opera

Nagy’s New Course & Rákosi’s Return:

It is no wonder that Hungarians received the news of Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 with almost unanimous relief. Gyula Kodolányi recalls how in school the next day they had to stand for a minute. Most of his friends bent their heads down, he remembers, not in mourning, but to hide glances of outright joy. Life on the streets was also commanded to halt for minutes of silence, but the attitude of the adults was similar, except for a few hysterical party members sobbing theatrically on the departure of their demigod.

As the new Soviet leadership recognised the possibility of peaceful co-existence with the West, this resulted in their recognition of the wider crisis which existed throughout their Empire in general, and Hungary in particular. Mátyás Rákosi, who was also Premier since 1952 and thought that things would return to normal once the power struggle in the Kremlin was over, was summoned to Moscow in the middle of June. In the presence of a party and state delegation he was reprimanded in a humiliating fashion by Lavrentiy Beria and the other Soviet leaders, who brutally dismissed him before his comrades for developing a personality cult and presiding over the collapse of the absurdly centralised Hungarian economy (due to policies implemented on their own demands, it has to be recognised, including the senseless industrialisation and forcible collectivisation of agriculture) and appalling living standards. At the same time, Beria announced that Imre Nagy, present in Moscow as Deputy Prime Minister, would be the new leader of Communist Hungary.  Nagy had fallen into disfavour in 1949, due to his dissent over the issue of collectivisation, and although he had gradually returned to the leadership of the party, he had managed to remain untainted by the terror. However, the ‘cadres’ in Budapest remained perplexed, since Rákosi had retained the party secretaryship, and it was therefore difficult for them to predict whether the Soviet leadership in the future would favour him or Nagy. Nevertheless, in the twenty-one months that followed, the Nagy government implemented significant corrections, justifying the description of the period as the new course. Nagy moved energetically to proclaim his policies for the new course on 4 July 1953. Kodolányi, then aged twelve, remembers walking home on a blazing hot evening in Budapest, in which all the windows were open to let in a cooling breeze:

… from every window Imre Nagy’s maiden speech as Prime Minister resounded forth from radios, often from radio sets placed on the window sills. It was a somewhat rasping but pleasant and unobtrusive voice, with intimate overtones of his native dialect of southwest Hungary… the unbelievable happened after so many years of Communism: a human voice speaking in Parliament, to real human beings. A Hungarian to fellow Hungarians. Morally and intellectually, Communism fell in Hungary at that moment – although in the world of power it remained here to pester us for another 37 years, an obtrusive carcass.

Imre Nagy may have been unaware of the full immense effect on the nation of the speech and his voice. He found his way to the hearts of the people, and at this moment already his road to martyrdom was fatally decided…

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At the earlier meeting of the party central committee on 27-28 June, Nagy had already stated that, in his view, Hungary had become a police state, and its government a shadow government in the service of the Communist Party. He demanded that the Party had to resort to ‘self-criticism’. In his historic Parliament speech, he promised the restoration of legality, the curbing of police power and the bringing of the ÁVH back under the control of the Interior Ministry. He promised a partial amnesty for political prisoners, the stopping of deportations and forced labour, and greater tolerance for religion. He also promised a sharp rise in living standards and the restructuring of the economy.  This would involve the abolition of costly development priorities in heavy industry, the restructuring of agricultural policy, the easing of burdens on the peasantry and the granting of their right to return to individual farming. His most urgent and important reforms were all codified in Parliament within a month. The effect was an immediate, immense sense of relief in society as hope, self-confidence and creativity emerged in all walks of life, despite the resistance which lurked in many pockets of Stalinist power. Too many people in positions of influence had been involved in the excesses of the Rákosi régime. Although the refreshing breeze of a new freedom of speech swept through the country, and the sins of Stalinist past were discussed widely, passions were kept in check.

However, partly owing to the power struggle ongoing in the Kremlin itself, the Soviet leadership became increasingly convinced that Nagy’s New Course was progressing too fast and dangerously. In early 1955 it decided that Rákosi had to be brought back to power. In January Nagy was censured by Khrushchev, who had displaced Malenkov, for the ‘radicalism’ of the reforms and ordered to correct the ‘mistakes’. His subsequent illness was used by Rákosi to prepare charges of right-wing deviation and nationalist tendencies against him and to arrange for his dismissal (18 April). Initially, Nagy’s replacement was András Hegedűs, a young man whom Rákosi and Gerő hoped to manipulate. However, Rákosi had not learnt the lessons of his fall from ‘grace’ and came back with the intention to take personal revenge in the spring of 1955, even though, by then, Stalinism had become a dirty word throughout the Soviet Empire. Another wave of forcible collectivisation of agriculture and a sharp increase in the number of political prisoners were among the most visible signs of re-Stalinisation. Nagy was ousted from the Hungarian Communist Party and withdrew from public life, but wrote memoranda defending the Marxist-Leninist basis of his reforms. He was supported by a large group of reformist intellectuals and revisionist Communist politicians, who still regarded him as their true leader. Tension continued to run high, so that the Soviets felt driven to interfere for a second time. The Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 indicated that the Kremlin now deemed the use of widespread terror to maintain the pace of the armaments race as unaffordable. Although Rákosi claimed, on his return, that the ‘secret speech’ had confirmed that no further steps were necessary to restore socialist legitimacy, the illicit listeners to it in central and western Europe knew that it put the seal on the policy of de-Stalinisation, the toleration of different national paths to Communism and the peaceful co-existence of the two world systems.

Catalysts of the Uprising:

On 21 July 1956 Rákosi was finally deposed and sent into exile in central Asia. But instead of bringing back Imre Nagy, Mikoyan appointed Rákosi’s hard-line henchman Ernő Gerő as Prime Minister, a grave miscalculation as it turned out. It was mistakenly believed in the Kremlin that by dropping Rákosi things would return to normal, but his replacement by another veteran Stalinist did nothing to satisfy either the opposition in the Hungarian Communist Party or the Yugoslav Communists, whose voice had started to matter again following the reconciliation between Moscow and Belgrade. It is clear from the 1991 account of the then British Ambassador to Budapest, Peter Unwin, that by the time of Mikoyan’s deposing of Rákosi on 17 July 1956, only Nagy had any chance of replacing him successfully as both party secretary and prime minister. But although Nagy was once again becoming a figure of influence, he was not only no longer prime minister, but was still out of office and suspended from the Party indefinitely. In appointing Gerő, Mikoyan missed the chance to make a clean break with the Rákosi régime. Gerő was an experienced, hard-working apparatchik who had been close to Rákosi since their days in exile in Moscow during the war. Although less hated than his erstwhile boss, he was equally discredited among his colleagues in Budapest. He also lacked the flexibility and skill of Rákosi.

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If Mikoyan had chosen Nagy in July, he would have given him the chance to create a position like Gomulka’s in Poland, strong enough both to resist both popular Hungarian and Soviet pressure. But the Kremlin remained distrustful of Gomulka’s efforts to come to terms with its own people and did not want to replicate these conditions in Hungary almost simultaneously. As a result, Nagy’s return to power was delayed for three vital months during the summer and early autumn of ’56, months which were also wasted by Gerő. Many Hungarians concluded that in replacing Rákosi with Gerő, the Soviets had made no decisive change in substance, even fearing that Rákosi might reappear yet again. All the old régime’s critics were equally convinced that real change could only be brought about by the return of Imre Nagy. Mikoyan kept in touch with Nagy, concluding that, should Gerő fail to establish his authority as a loyal Soviet subordinate, he would still have time to turn to the insubordinate and unrepentant Nagy.

During August and September the rehabilitation of political prisoners continued and there was no attempt made to silence the reformists clamouring for liberalisation and freedom of the press. Their success depended on their ability to stay ‘within bounds’, to gain popular control of peripheral spheres of national life, but not to threaten the central core of orthodox party power. Gerő remained reluctant to give Nagy a platform for renewed political activity. Yet the former prime minister was also a Bolshevik of nearly forty years’ standing and, as such, the one individual who could unite the nation and most of the party. Yet at the same time Gerő ignored the various unofficial promptings from Nagy, refusing to take action against him and his associates. When Nagy applied in writing for readmission to the Party on 4 October, he specifically accepted democratic centralism, in other words the right of the Party to discipline him, and Gerő’s leadership, despite the outrage of his friends. Gerő took nine days to respond to the application, making the strained atmosphere between the two camps even worse.

Discredited party functionaries were exposed in the press and the Petöfi Circle continued with its debates on burning issues like economic policy, the condition of agriculture and educational reform. After discussing the matter with Moscow, Gerő finally agreed to Nagy’s readmission. He was finally re-adopted by the party a week after the reburial of Rajk on 6 October, which turned into a 100,000-strong peaceful demonstration against the crimes of Stalinism. A delegation of Hungarian leaders visited Belgrade, and, by the time they returned, matters had already slipped beyond the party’s control. What had begun as a struggle between revisionist and orthodox Communists, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, had turned into growing ferment among the intelligentsia and become a full-scale anti-Soviet revolution.

Following the reburial and rehabilitation of László Rajk and the victims of the purges of 1949, on 6th and 13th October, the newspapers carried the decision of the Political Committee to readmit Nagy to party membership. His Chair at the university and his membership of the Academy of Sciences were restored soon after, but there was no word of a return to public office. Demands for reform continued to spread and the country was soon ablaze with debate and discussion groups, which became local ‘parliaments’. But both sides seemed to back away from confrontation while events in Belgrade and Warsaw took their course. Events in Budapest were shaping as Nagy had predicted they would, with the nation facing crisis. He was close to power. The British Minister in Budapest reported on 18 October that…

Nagy’s star appears firmly in the ascendant and I am reliably informed that it is only a question of time before he obtains high office.

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As he relaxed on a short break at Lake Balaton, there was tumult throughout the country. Besides Budapest, students were calling for marches and demonstrations in Miskolc, Szeged, Pécs and Sopron.  The news of the Polish success in the showdown with Khrushchev on 19 November intoxicated them and excited mass meetings began by passing resolutions in support of Poland and ended in the formulation of demands for reform in Hungary.

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The origins and causes of the events of 1956 are often viewed through the prism of more recent attempts of central-eastern European states to wriggle free from the overarching and all-pervasive control of Soviet communism. However, whilst we may conclude that the 1956 Hungarian Uprising was an anti-Soviet revolution, based on contemporary and eye-witness accounts, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that it was not intrinsically anti-Communist, despite the justifications used by apologists for the Kádár régime which followed. Like many of the subsequent rebellions, even that of East Germany in 1989, both the leadership and the bulk of their followers were committed communists, or Marxist-Leninists, seeking reform and revision of the system, not its total overthrow. In her detailed and well-informed analysis of the Hungarian Revolution, Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote in 1957:

This was a true event whose stature will not depend upon 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.

This was certainly the case, although, as we have seen, the twelve previous years were hardly uneventful. However, anyone who has lived through one of the accelerations of history which have happened in Europe in more recent years may have some idea of the sense of headiness engendered at that time. Arendt marvelled at the way in which the Revolution was initiated by the prime objects of indoctrination, the “over-privileged” of the Communist system: left-wing intellectuals, university students, workers; the Communist avant-garde: their motive was neither their own nor their fellow-citizens’ material misery, but exclusively Freedom and Truth”. This was, she concluded, an ultimate affirmation that human nature is unchangeable, that nihilism will be futile, that… yearning for freedom and truth will rise out of man’s heart and mind forever. What, for her, was also remarkable, was that, given the atmosphere and the lines drawn by early October 1956, there was no civil war. For the Hungarian army, the interior police and most of the Marxist-Leninist régime and its cadres, those lines were quickly swept away by the tide of events. Only the Ávó remained loyal to the hard-line Stalinist cause.

The eye-witness evidence of Sándor Kopácsi, the Budapest Police chief, and Béla Király, the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian National Guard, both committed communists, of itself provides sufficient evidence that the Revolution was not an anti-Communist counter-revolution. More recently than their accounts, a memorandum of István Bibó, a Minister of State in the Nagy government of 1956 has been translated into English. Bibó was not a Communist, having been delegated by the re-established National Peasant Party, re-named The Petöfi Party. Between January and April 1957 he wrote down his thoughts for world leaders and delivered his memorandum to the US Embassy. He was later arrested along with Árpád Göncz and others and tried for treason and conspiracy. Although given the death sentence, he was released in 1963 under the general amnesty negotiated by the US and the Vatican with the Kádár régime. In the memorandum, his contemporary interpretation of the causes of the Uprising comes across even more clearly than those of Kopácsi and Király, who were caught up in its events:

In a word, the Hungarian action of the Soviet Union, which had been meant to avoid surrendering a position, has only dealt a blow to the position of communism… … the movements in Hungary, Poland and other Communist countries have most amply demonstrated that there is a genuine and active demand for the reality of freedom and its most developed techniques… These movements have proved that the demand for change is not limited to the victims of the one-party régime, it indeed came forth from those the single-party system brought up, its youths; there need be no worry that they would lead to the restoration of outdated social and political forms… The Hungarian Revolution and the popular movements of Eastern Europe mean that the Western world can and should follow a policy line that is neither aggressive nor informed by power considerations but is more active and enterprising and aims not to impose its economic and social system on others but step by step seeks to win East European countries and finally the Soviet Union over to Western techniques of freedom and the shared political morality in which it is grounded.

The fact that this was written in hiding and smuggled out of the country lends a certain poignancy to Bibó’s perspective, since it is not influenced by the western surroundings  of exile in North America. I have dealt elsewhere with the events and outcomes of this spontaneous national uprising, as the UN Special Committee described it in 1957. What is clear from the reading of the available evidence about its causes is that Kádár’s propaganda that it was inspired and led by fascists, anti-Semites, reactionaries and imperialists, echoing, strongly at first, all the way down to the recent sixtieth anniversary, no longer has any place in the national discourse.

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Bartók Béla Boulevard elementary school Class 8a, spring 1956

Tom is third from left in the middle row, Dani in front row extreme right

Form teacher Benedek Bölöni (Béni bácsi)

Sources:

Hungarian Review, November 2016, Vol VII, No. 6.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

Tom Leimdofer’s Family Memoirs, unpublished (including photos).

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The Fall of Herod the Great: Twenty-Five Years on from The Romanian Revolution.   Leave a comment

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The Last Stalinist

At the end of the events of 1989, there was one last, grim, twist. The only Eastern European nation still ruled by an old-school Communist was Romania. The tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu had run the country with a rod of iron since 1965, turning it into a police state. The Securitate, the secret police, terrorised the people into submission while Ceausecu imposed his Stalinist will over the nation and its economy.  At the meeting of the Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow the day after Gorbachev returned from the Malta summit with President Bush, Ceausescu was the sole Eastern European Communist boss still in office since the last Warsaw Pact summit, only five months before. Gorbachev spoke of eliminating the Cold War, while Ceausescu said the West was out to liquidate socialism. He called for the building up of the Warsaw Pact  against the common danger of NATO. The other Eastern European heads of government ignored him. They went on to support a Czech resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of 1968 which Ceausescu refused to sign. After a frank exchange of opinions with Gorbachev, the Romanian leader flew home in a bad temper.

Two weeks later the Securitate opened fire on protestors who had gathered in the traditionally dissident Transylvanian city of Timisoara in western Romania. For several days the shootings continued, but still people came out onto the streets in ever-growing numbers.  On 21 December, Ceausescu gave a prepared speech from the balcony of his presidential palace in Bucharest to a huge, specially assembled crowd. He intended to show he still had the supporters to restore order, and it was carried live on television. But Romanians had had enough of him.

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Leonid Brezhnev made a historic visit to Romania in November 1976 (above), only too conscious that the government of Nicolae Ceausescu was being courted in the seventies by western politicians who should have known better. For a time it had been useful to them, since they erroneously believed that his independent policies were turning Romania into a Trojan horse within the Warsaw Pact. He had kept his links with Israel and China, when the rest of the Soviet bloc had severed theirs. He advocated the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe and ways of relaxing tension between the two power groupings. But as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985,  Ceausescu’s usefulness to the West dropped away.

It was no secret that Ceausescu’s regime was responsible for serious infringements of human rights. For its size, Romania had the highest number of secret policemen in the entire Soviet bloc: the Securitate had almost a hundred thousand full-time members. One third of the population, it was said, were informers. Every Romanian who talked to a foreigner was required to report the conversation to the Securitate within twenty-four hours. Securitate officers had the right people’s houses under any number of pretexts and confiscate ‘illegal’ possessions.  The illicit goods Law of 1974 declared the ownership of rare metals and precious stones a state monopoly. A supposed shortage of paper meant that writers were not allowed to publish more than one book a year.

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By the mid-eighties, Ceausescu himself had become a parody of a dictator. The newspapers, radio and television were mostly devoted to his and his family’s doings. In June 1978 the Queen had been obliged, much against her own better judgement, by the then Prime Minister James Callaghan, and his Foreign Secretary, David Owen, to invite Ceausescu to Buckingham Palace. The Labour government was beset with problems at home, and anxious to prove its worth in international diplomacy in relieving the Cold War tensions between the superpowers. Elena Ceausescu, riding in State with Prince Philip along the Mall, enjoyed herself immensely.

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The Queen’s face, however, seemed to show a lack of amusement as she travelled alongside the President. However, back at the Palace, which ‘inspired’ the Romanian couple to plan their own palace in Bucharest, the Queen was both amused and annoyed by the Ceausescu’s assumption that his rooms were bugged. Every morning he would go for a walk, with all his ministers in attendance, around the gardens of the Palace in order to avoid the microphones which he supposed were everywhere. One of his other obsessions was that the Soviets might try to poison him by secreting a radioactive isotope near him, as he believed they had done with his predecessor, who had died of cancer. The Queen gave him two English-bred Labradors, who lived far better than most ordinary Romanians. They had their own limousines, which drove down the centre of lane in the main streets of Bucharest, and they were fed only the best lean steak. Government ministers were expected to address them as ‘Comrades’, and it was a not very funny joke that their master was thinking of giving them seats in the Senate.

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Western politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlooking his increasing madness and megalomania, together with his government’s treatment of his own people, because they felt that his was an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact. After meeting the dictator on his visit to Britain in June 1978,  the then leader of the Opposition commented,

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceausescu… Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding, in particular by means of numerous direct contacts leading to the development of bilateral collaboration.

In August 1978, Ceausescu won approval from the Chinese, as their premier, Hua Guo-Feng visited Romania:

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As late as 1988,  Harold Wilson (above), Britain’s PM in much of the 1960s an 1970s sent the dictator a telegram which read: You have raised the Romanian nation to a unique role in the world. By this time,  Ceausecu’s wild extravagance was making Romania’s economic situation far worse. He decided to build a boulevard through Bucharest longer than the Champs-Elysées, lined with shops and mansions. At the head of it was to be a presidential palace larger than Buckingham Palace. It was to contain more than a thousand rooms, and cost more than a billion US dollars, though most of the labour was supplied by the army. Whole regiments were deployed in building what was to be called The House of the Republic (pictured below), and was scheduled for completion in January 1990.

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He had declared that he would pay off Romania’s foreign debt by the middle of 1989, which meant a disturbing programme of austerity for the ordinary Romanians while they could see the extravagance of the building programme in front of their eyes. This was all happening in a country which had been kept short of food and consumer goods since the early 1970s.

Romania had once been called the bread-basket of the Balkans: By the end of the 1980s it was an economic ‘basket case’, exporting ninety per cent of its of its food produce. Eggs became a form of currency, changing hands perhaps a dozen times before they were actually eaten. Westerners who stayed in the foreign currency hotels of Bucharest were unto find ordinary Romanians watching hungrily through the street-level windows while they ate. In the largely Hungarian-speaking area of Transylvania, rationing was intensified to five eggs, a kilo of flour, a kilo of sugar and a kilo of cheese per person per month. Conditions were not much better in Bucharest, and for the country as a whole the rationing was worse than it had been during the Second World War. With Ceausescu, there were scarcely any policies which he could not force on the country. The so-called systematisation of the rural areas, for instance, was something only Stalin or Mao Tse-dong had tried to introduce before him. Its origins lay, as Mao’s reorganisation of the Chinese countryside had done, in a desire to reduce the disparities of wealth and opportunity between country and town. As early as 1967 Ceausescu had announced a policy of homeginisation between the two, but the first projects were not begun until un 1979.  Poor villages were to be demolished and their inhabitants relocated in agro-industrial centres; 558 villages were selected for this process. Naturally, this was deeply unpopular, and even the Communist Party bureaucracy opposed it, with local Party secretaries using every available tactic to delay its implementation. Various Western journalists claimed to have seen or filmed this process, particularly in Transylvania, where it became mixed up with the issue of ethnic Hungarian rights. In the end, only five villages, all in the Bucharest area and all on the route of the President’s motorcade route to one of his country houses, were seriously affected. However, the policy, together with the austerity measures, represented a dangerous attack on the values of a largely agrarian society by an increasingly power-crazed dictator.

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John Simpson, the BBC TV reporter and foreign correspondent was in Romania in the spring of 1989, where a young woman betrayed his crew to the local Securitate in Cluj. He summed up the mood at the time:

As for the woman who had reported us… it was impossible to blame her. Only a handful of Romanians had the moral courage to speak out against the conditions Ceausescu imposed on them. Once they had put their heads above the parapet they could expect to be badly treated. Most people were prepared to put up with the unrelenting hardships of everyday life in silence rather than endure that. She could not have known that we would be allowed to go free; but a regime like Ceausescu’s induces and rewards selfishness and inaction. Later, no doubt, she was embarrassed at what she had done.  But in the spring of 1989 there was no reason whatever to suppose that Ceausescu and his wife would be overthrown before the end of the year. At that time, the regime looked as if it would last forever.  

Arriving in Bucharest, they went out to film the Boulevard with the enormous, elegant and absurdly expensive House of the Republic at its end. By 1989, Ceausescu had become so obsessed with the project that he paid ninety-nine visits to it over the course of the year before his death, examining every little detail. He told the men and women in charge of building it to remember that it was to last for five hundred to a thousand years. The Ceausescu’s were influenced in their choice of interior design, as with the exterior, by their stay with the Queen in 1978. The president’s office, only completed after the dictator’s death, was more than a hundred feet long, with a huge patterned carpet. A little man with skilfully built up shoes, Ceausescu needed imposing circumstances to seem imposing himself.

Rebellion in Transylvania and Revolution in Bucharest

On 20 November 1989, the regime which Nicolae Ceaucescu had run since 1964 seemed to be coup-proof. It was a text-book example of a Marxist-Leninist state. Scientific Socialism,  Ceaucescu had explained to the Congress,  is in absolutely no danger.  They applauded him to the echo, gave him more than forty standing ovations, and re-elected him as President for a further five years. The autocracies of central and eastern Europe might be like dominoes in a circle all around Romania’s borders, but Romania itself was safe for Stalinism. Then, in mid-December in Timisoara, a city in Transylvania with a majority Hungarian-speaking population  (Temesvár in Magyar),the Securitate came to arrest a Reformed Church pastor, László Tökés, for speaking to the Western media. Many of his flock gathered around his manse to protect him. They drove off the Securitate and in the days that followed what had begun as a religious and cultural dispute became broader, as ethnic Romanians joined in. It became an uprising against the government. The tanks were summoned and many people died, but the troops were beaten off. Now the Army’s loyalty was in question, as a little local incident had turned into a full-scale rebellion, the most serious threat that the dictator had faced in a quarter of a century.

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Ceaucesu was not given the full facts about the Timisoara Rebellion. The Securitate kept some of the worst details from him, fearing that it would be blamed for allowing the situation to get out of hand.  As a result, the president had no real idea of the intensity of the feeling against him, or the extent of the uprising he already faced. His response to what he was told was to call a public rally in the main square of the capital. He would address it and the people would listen respectfully, as they always had done. Some of his ministers tried to suggest a television broadcast instead, but he he ignored their concerns. The Securitate sent its men to the factories and offices to instruct fifty people from each workplace to turn out or face being sacked. Loyal party members were to take up their positions at the front of the crowd, and the pleasant winter sunshine encouraged people to turn out in sufficient numbers to provide anonymity for everyone else there. The loyalists at the front held up their long red banners which spoke of Socialist progress and their leader’s heroism. Above their heads, portraits of a much younger Ceausescu were waved. They clapped in unison as Romanian TV broadcast live. As it turned out, that was a serious error of judgement.

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The Great Dictator stood on the balcony overlooking the Square and surveyed his people. In his black Astrakhan hat and his coat with matching collar, he looked very presidential, standing on an unseen box to make him look taller. Beside him were his wife Elena and assorted courtiers, together with his personal head of security, Neagoe, a large man in a fedora hat. Shortly, a few words from him would help change the course of Romanian history. But for the time being, each time each time the president paused, there was more clapping in unison. He waved back,  in a way that was perhaps intended to show humility, but actually made him look more imperious to most of the crowd beyond the loyal front ranks whom he was thanking for organising the rally.

Suddenly, there was a low groan from a section of the crowd, which quickly grew louder and higher and then erupted into booing, whistling and cat-calls.

018It was a total surprise to Ceausescu. He had been reading his speech in his hoarse, old man’s voice, his eyes on the sheet of paper in front of him. As the sound of the booing gradually penetrated him, he looked over to his right, where it was loudest. But he went on pumping out the bland words for a much more slowly now, not thinking what they meant, but trying to think instead about the booing. At his words faded altogether, and he stopped. It was a laughable and shocking moment: a tyrant coming face to face with the hatred of his people:  Macbeth watching the wood begin to move. He put up his right hand, trying to order the crowd to be silent, but it looked as if he was warding off the noise of the booing  and what it meant. One of the group of ministers to his right must have offered some advice, off-mike, because he waved him away angrily. Then, from the right of the screen, the head of the President’s personal bodyguard, Neagoe, came into shot, walking swiftly towards Ceausescu. He paused behind him for an instant, and the microphones picked up his voice and boomed it out over the Square:

They’re getting in.

The general headed for the big French window behind Ceausescu, holding his coat open as though he had a gun in a shoulder holster and would soon pull it out. Elena Ceausescu’s thin, harsh voice was also picked up by the microphone:

Stay calm, please.

Her instincts were right. The crowd wasn’t getting in. There was no plot, no coup. no insurrection, but simply booing, the reaction from years of repression. At that point someone at the television station decided to cut the transmission. The evidence that Ceausescu could be threatened was therefore transmitted live to every home and workplace where the television was switched on, throughout the country. He was vulnerable, after all. However, the moment swiftly passed, when it became obvious that the crowd was not breaking into the Central Committee building and that the rally was continuing, the television cut back to the President.  Ceausescu was continuing with his prepared speech as though nothing had happened, warning about the consequences of the rioting in Timisoara. But it was too late. There were thousands of people out on the streets that afternoon and evening with the same sense of burning grievance. They had realised that the regime was momentarily weakened and that it might just be overthrown if they all stuck together and kept their nerve. They chanted, we want free elections and Don’t leave the streets. They were rewarded by many more, who had been watching the live broadcast, coming out onto the streets, from all over the city, as the Securitate forces hesitated to break up the existing dissenting crowds from the rally.  A full-scale rebellion was taking shape.

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As night fell, the Securitate received orders to shoot to kill.  The crowds built barricades and set fire to cars, as street-fighting became general. The insurgents had no guns or bullets with which to answer the fire of the Securitate, but they made use of Molotov cocktails and the cover of darkness. By dawn on 22 December the outcome was clear, as the crowds had taken control of the main avenue and squares with the Securitate troops having melted away. The insurgents had demonstrated the power of numbers and determination.  The key to their eventual success now lay with the Army, who had so far refused to support the Securitate troops.  At this point the defence minister, General Vasili Milea was shot by Ceausecu’s bodyguard for refusing to pass on the orders for the Army to fire on the insurgents. When the news of this  was broadcast on the TV, the Army was infuriated, and began to change sides,  thus bringing about a revolutionary situation. Ceasescu tried to make one last appeal to the the crowds in the Square, but this time there were no plain clothes Securitate among them, and the crowd hurled stones at him, so that his bodyguard had to quickly bundle him back into the building. This time, the the insurgents did break into the building, and many of those defending it gave up their weapons to them. However, there was just enough resistance from the Securitate troops to enable the  dictator and his wife to escape by helicopter from the roof. A National Salvation Front was declared and , consisting of former Ceausescu aides and a few prominent dissidents. The Army transferred its allegiance to the new government. There was sporadic fighting between soldiers and the remaining Securitate, but by Christmas Day the fighting in Bucharest was over and the revolution had succeeded. Only the fate of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu remained to be decided.

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Top left: A couple of volunteers carrying water to the pro-revolutionary troops are stranded in no-man’s land.

Top right: 22 December – a casualty of the sniping. The building in the centre of the picture is a block of where the Securitate men lived.

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Above: The poet, Mircea Dinescu, newly free, declaims to camera at the studios of Romanian Television on 22 December.

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