Nov 2006 Journal

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A Central European tragedy

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of a Cold War tragedy, the suppression of the Hungarian uprising by Soviet troops in November 1956. This can perhaps be seen as the last in the series of violent episodes that convulsed Hungary from 1918; even allowing for the current bout of political turbulence, Hungary has in the main settled down peacefully since 1989, becoming a dutiful new member of the EU, a tourist hotspot and a purveyor of fiery red wines to the dinner tables of Western Europe.

With the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire, power in independent Hungary passed rapidly from the moderate government of Count Michael Károlyi to the radical left-wing regime of Béla Kun. Hungary seemed to be falling to a tide of revolution flowing westwards from Soviet Russia. But, as in Bavaria, the 'Red' regime in Hungary was swiftly and bloodily suppressed by counter-revolutionary 'White' forces, which instituted a reign of terror far worse than that of the left.

Admiral Horthy, one of the tinpot authoritarians who ruled in Central and Eastern Europe between the wars, took power; he duly threw in his lot with Hitler, sending Hungarian troops into the Soviet Union alongside the Germans. When disaster overtook that campaign, Horthy sought to extricate himself from the German alliance. That prompted Hitler to occupy Hungary in 1944, leading in turn to the genocide of Hungarian Jewry and to the invasion of the country by the Red Army, which proceeded to install its own dictatorship under Mátyás Rákosi, 'Stalin's best Hungarian disciple'. Hungarian politics seemed doomed to alternate between the extremes of the murderous pro-Nazi Arrow Cross and the hated Communist secret police, the ÁVH.

By 1956, discontent in Hungary had been fuelled by the failures of its Soviet-style economy, by the excesses of Rákosi's Stalinist regime, and by the wave of liberalisation that followed Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956. Rákosi was compelled to resign as General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party in July 1956. The trigger for the uprising was a demonstration by university students in support of the newly installed regime of Wladyslaw Gomulka in Poland. On 23 October 1956, as they marched through Budapest to the statue of General Józef Bem, a Polish hero of the Hungarian national uprising of 1848 against Hapsburg rule, they were joined by tens of thousands of other demonstrators; but when the crowd marched on the parliament building, ÁVH security police opened fire on them.

It was this that ignited a full-scale armed insurrection: the Hungarian Communist Party collapsed and a new government was formed under the reformist Imre Nagy. Soviet forces proved unable to re-establish the former government and withdrew in face of the independent popular organisations that sprang up across the country. But Nagy's announcement that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact, which had been founded the previous year, was unacceptable to the Soviet leaders, who feared the loss of their Central European buffer zone of satellite states, designed to protect them against invasions like Hitler's.

On 4 November, Soviet forces invaded Hungary, crushing all resistance. The Soviet leaders calculated correctly that the West would not intervene, especially as the looming Suez crisis was setting Britain and France at odds with the USA. Thousands of Hungarians were deported without trial to the Soviet Union. A new Hungarian government, installed under János Kádár, held trials and executions. Imre Nagy sought refuge in the Yugoslav embassy. Despite a promise of safe conduct, he was arrested when he left the embassy; Nagy was executed in 1958, along with Pál Maléter, the military leader of the uprising. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria, among them a considerable number of Jews. The AJR gave generous support to Hungarian Jews who reached Britain: for months after the uprising, its employment agency sought to find jobs for this fresh wave of refugees, and the employment columns of AJR Information brimmed with requests for positions for unemployed Hungarians.

The aftermath of the uprising proved unexpectedly positive. János Kádár set Hungary on a path of moderate reform, keeping the population satisfied while avoiding further confrontation with the Soviets. Without the backing of mass organisations like Solidarity and the Catholic Church in Poland, he nevertheless achieved a measure of freedom in Hungary, which never experienced the stifling repression of Ulbricht and Honecker in East Germany or of Husak in Czechoslovakia. Fittingly, it was Hungary that first breached the Iron Curtain, when in summer 1989 it allowed East German tourists to cross its border into Austria. Since 1956, Hungary has abandoned the path of violence and extremism, along with the expansionist dream of recreating the realm that it controlled until 1918 in its half of the Dual Monarchy, when its territories extended in a great arc from Transylvania in the east and Slovakia in the north to Croatia on the Adriatic coast. It will, I think, resolve its present problems in a broadly constitutional manner, either through fresh elections or through the fall of the discredited prime minister and/or his government.
Anthony Grenville

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