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Revolution Revisited

MP Andrew Telegdi and 'How the 56'ers changed Canada


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Revolution Revisited


At the end of the anniversary year 1956-57 we would like to reproduce an article Judy Stoffman wrote a year ago, October 15th, 2006, in the Toronto Star. You can find other articles by Judy on this website, see the Book Review of Kasztner's Train; Watching a Toronto neighbourhood fade away; Biography of Faludy and Where to wait for the muse.


Oct. 15, 2006

It lasted less than two weeks, from the first euphoric student demonstrations in Budapest on Oct. 23 till its final bloody end on Nov. 4, when it was crushed by Soviet tanks, but the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 left an indelible mark on Cold War politics and continues to resonate today.


Thanks to the work of historians rooting through newly released materials, the world's first televised revolution is now seen as a classic case of how the Cold War deformed international relations in ways that are still felt in Iran, Afghanistan and Latin America.


In fact, only now, 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, is the truth about what happened and why coming into clear focus.


"Since 1990, scholars have found a lot of new material on the revolution," says Géza Jeszenszky, a history professor at Corvinus University in Budapest and Hungary's former ambassador to the U.S., who was recently in Toronto.


"Apart from the opening of the Hungarian archives (particularly the secret files of the Communist Party and the Ministry of the Interior), part of the Soviet records pertaining to the intervention have become available, and much of the American documents, including the activities of the CIA and Radio Free Europe."


This month marks the 50th anniversary of the uprising of the Hungarian people against a brutal communist dictatorship. It is being remembered with commemorative events in Europe, the United States and Canada, where almost 38,000 Hungarian refugees - including this writer and her family - found a new home in the wake of the revolt.


Moved by televised images of brave, young Hungarians fighting for freedom against the Soviet army with rocks, Molotov cocktails, even bare hands, Canada accepted more refugees relative to its population - then only 16 million - than any other country. Immigration minister Jack Pickersgill even arranged free transit and waived the mandatory chest X-rays.


Last month, the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto sponsored a conference at which some of the most distinguished scholars in the field - Istvan Deak of Columbia University, Harvard's Mark Kramer, Nandor Dreisziger of the Royal Military College in Kingston, and a clutch of historians from Hungary such as Jeszenszky, Laszlo Borhi, Attila Pok, Laszlo Ritter - debated the events of 1956. Last week at the University of Ottawa, another conference took place titled "The 1956 Revolution 50 Years Later - Canadian and International Perspectives."


The National Arts Centre in Ottawa is presenting Hungarian music and musicians, as well as a photo exhibition by V. Tony Hauser. On Tuesday there will a gala presentation at the Canadian Museum of Civilization of Hungarian director Istvan Szabo's film "Sunshine", with producer Robert Lantos present to discuss the film. Cinematheque Ontario will screen Hungarian films here in November, and the CBC will air a documentary, "The Fifty-Sixers Hungarian Revolution", on Oct. 26.


New books about 1956 are rolling off the presses, and memories of those far-off days are being dusted off by those who lived through them or simply watched in horrified fascination. The images on the TV screen showed that democracy is a hardy plant, watered by underground streams, that can't be permanently smothered if people really desire it.


What happened was this: In February 1956 at the 20th Communist Party Congress, Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev made a stunning speech denouncing the crimes of Josef Stalin, who had died three years previously. The contents of this secret speech soon leaked out and kindled the hope that Hungary might free itself from Soviet domination. The country began to seethe with debate, which intensified after a brief uprising in Poznan, Poland, in June of that year. It was put down in a day but resulted in Khrushchev's assent to a more liberal form of communism in Poland under Wladyslaw Gomulka.


In Budapest, a discussion group sprang up within the Young Communists organization, calling itself the Petõfi Circle (after the heroic nationalist poet who was executed following the defeat of the 1848-49 revolt against the Hapsburg dynasty). Its members began to meet semi-openly, attracting many intellectuals who voiced discontent with the climate of repression, jail without trial, and the virtual theft of the country's resources, especially food, which was often bought below cost by the Soviets.


Sandor Kopacsi, then police chief of Budapest, who ended up in exile in Toronto working as a janitor for Ontario Hydro, wrote in his memoirs that plainclothes police were sent to check on the Petõfi Circle and came away deeply affected.


"Suddenly a majority of these `spies' declared that they were in agreement with the points made in the Petofi Circle!" Kopacsi recounted. "Together they issued a statement, which they signed, declaring themselves in solidarity with the ideas put forward by the young reformists of the party."

On Oct. 23, the pent-up discontent exploded. Groups of students and workers gathered to demonstrate at the statue, on the Buda side of the Danube, of the Polish general Józef Bem, who had aided the Hungarians in 1848, to proclaim their demands for government reform. Across the river, demonstrators also assembled around the statue of Petõfi, and the two groups joined up and pushed on to Heroes' Square, where they took hammers and blow torches to the hated statue of Josef Stalin (today the head and boot of the statue are at the National Museum in Budapest). Much to the disgust of Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador to Hungary and the KGB's man in Budapest, the police refused to intervene.


The crowd went to the state-controlled radio station asking to broadcast their demands for change, and shots were fired for the first time by Hungary's hated secret police, the AVH. After that, the fighting become general and the rebels took control of the station.


The chief demand of the demonstrators was the return to power of the popular 60-year-old Imre Nagy, ousted as premier the previous year by Communist hardliners, including the detested First Secretary of the Party, Ernõ Gerõ. Nagy had proposed much needed reforms, including breaking up 700 failed collective farms.


The outgoing premier, Andras Hegedus, handed over power to Nagy on Oct. 24 as Soviet tanks, long stationed in the country at a base near the town of Tököl, rolled into Budapest to try to restore order. The revolutionaries held them off.


Nagy organized a multi-party coalition government, got an undertaking from Moscow to pull out the tanks, and called for a ceasefire. There was a brief respite during which it appeared that the Soviets were leaving and might allow Nagy to become the Hungarian Gomulka, but then the rebels laid siege to Party headquarters and lynched defenders of the building. They also took to executing anyone suspected of being a member of the AVH. The small playground where I used to go with my father was dug up and turned into an impromptu cemetery.


We now know that Khrushchev made the decision on Oct. 31 to go back on his promise of troop withdrawal. He secretly ordered that the revolution be crushed.


According to a new book, "Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt" by Charles Gati, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, Khrushchev grasped that the Hungarians, unlike the Poles, would not accept a longer leash: They wanted no leash at all. Nagy, Gati argues, did not have the political skill to work out a compromise that could have avoided bloodshed, something Krushchev realized.


At the start of November, some Soviet tanks were leaving while others were rolling across Hungary's eastern border. The revolutionary newspaper "Igazsag "(meaning /Truth)" asked in a headline on Nov. 2: "Are they coming or going?" A defiant Nagy announced the reinstatement of the multi-party system, declared Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw pact, and its neutrality.


Hungarians, whipped up by the frenzied rhetoric of the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe, fully expected the United States to intervene, but neither the U.S. nor the United Nations was prepared to act. Were they distracted by the unfolding Suez Crisis in the Middle East? Most scholars today think the outcome would have been the same if there had been no Suez Crisis.


In the early hours of Nov. 4, the Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest. Nagy, knowing it was all over, took refuge at the Yugoslav embassy. He was later to be tried, executed and buried in an unmarked grave. His heroic behaviour during his rigged trial - his refusal to recant or apologize or resign his premiership - is beautifully described in Gati's book.


During the fighting 2,700 people died, 230 were executed afterwards - a shockingly high number for a country then of 9 million - and 200,000 crawled under barbed wires at the border to freedom in the west. My own family left behind everything, including a pair of skates - my first - that I had just received for my ninth birthday and never had a chance to use. Four decades later, on a grey February day, I went skating on the city's main rink in the Liget (the city's largest park), trying to put back the pieces of my broken childhood.


After those few heady days of freedom, Moscow set up the puppet government headed by Janos Kadar, once a friend and ally of Nagy. Kadar remained head of the Hungarian Communist Party until 1988 and introduced so-called "goulash communism," which allowed limited private enterprise. It led to Hungary being dubbed the happiest barrack in the prison that was the Soviet bloc, though it also created widespread cynicism, bribery and a thriving black market.


"The real power always rested in Moscow," recalled professor Istvan Deak at the Munk Centre conference. "The people were infantalized. I was on a streetcar in Budapest in the 1980s and noticed women talking baby talk to each other. `We are allowed to take an itsy-bitsy trip to Spain now - isn't it wonderful?'"


Discussion of 1956 - officially referred to as a counter-revolution - was taboo until Hungary's regime change of 1990, in the dying days of the Soviet Union. By then, following the 30-year-rule for classified documents, the U.S. archives were open.


"The first revelation was that the West was not trying to foster this breakout but was trying to find a "modus vivendi "with the Soviets; our revolution was unexpected and not welcome," says Csaba Békés, a scholar based at the 1956 Institute in Budapest and a co-editor of "The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A ""History in Documents "(2003)". "The CIA, which had orchestrated the fall of a nationalist government in Iran in 1953 and put the infamous Shah in power, had nothing to do with the revolt, the archives reveal. In October 1956, it had just one Hungarian-speaking operative in the country. The U.S., like Canada, had no embassy in Budapest, only an ineffectual legation.


"The U.S. had a double-faced policy, a non-violent policy," Békés says." They wanted to keep alive the desire for freedom in the communist bloc until the system failed, which it was bound to do. The message got sent by Radio Free Europe, but there was no promise of help. People didn't know it was just rhetoric. False hopes were created."


Radio Free Europe, staffed by right-wing émigré Hungarians, had slandered Nagy throughout the revolt, portraying him as just another communist - which was how Washington saw him, unable to grasp that the communist world was not monolithic. This simplistic view would subsequently play out in countries around the globe during the Cold War, with the United States toppling leftist regimes (Nicaragua, Guatamala, Chile), and ignoring massive suffering perpetrated by right-wing dictators (the Congo, Iran, Chile, Argentina).


After 1956, Radio Free Europe moderated its tone. "Instead of liberation, they promoted liberalization," says Békés, one of the participating scholars in the conference last week at the University of Ottawa.


"Then came the Soviet revelation, the documents in the 1990s, which showed that they tried at first to find a political solution," Békés says. "They came to the conclusion that no preservation of the communist system was possible without intervention, because by Nov. 3 Hungary was no longer a communist country. It had undergone a social revolution."


There was never a chance that Hungary could defeat the Red Army, but Békés nevertheless calls 1956 an "outstanding moment in world history. The value of historical events is not based on their success. Victorious revolutions are not that many."


Suddenly it was clear that the Soviet bloc was held together by force, and the credibility of its ideology was permanently damaged. In the west, thousands left the Communist Party. In his memoir, "Red Diaper Baby", the Canadian political scientist James Laxer has described the disillusionment of his own true-believer communist family after 1956.


In June 1989, the re-burial of Imre Nagy and four other martyrs of the Revolution signalled the peaceful end of Hungary's communist regime. Free elections took place the following year for the first time since 1948; more than half a dozen parties re-emerged as they did in 1956, with the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) winning the largest share of votes.


In the last year of his life, Janos Kadar, the quisling post-revolution Communist leader, suffered a complete mental breakdown. In April 1989, he asked to address a meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. To a stunned audience, recounts Gati, Kadar delivered a confused, convoluted, nonsensical monologue about "a certain man" - evidently Imre Nagy - who was hounding him.


Kadar had given Nagy, his family and his associates a pledge of safe conduct from the Yugoslav embassy, but in reality had conspired with the KGB to have them taken off a bus, sent to house arrest in Romania, and from there to jail and certain death.

Like Lady Macbeth, he could not wash the blood off his hands. Kadar died three weeks after Imre Nagy was re-buried.


The Star's Judy Stoffman is co-translator (with Daniel Stoffman) of "In The Name of the Working Class", the memoirs of Sandor Kopacsi. Ms Stoffman is a Toronto-based literary journalist, born in Budapest.


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