The Hungarian Refugee Student Movement of 1956-57 and Canada
Canadian Ethnic Studies/études ethniques au Canada. 30, No. I (1998): 19-49.
Peter I. Hidas
A country's brain drain usually benefits other countries. Such was Hungary's case in 1956. According to a contemporary report based on police records over 3,200 university and college students, 11.2% of the total, left Hungary permanently as a direct consequence of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. This report, however, is based on a count of 90% of the refugees and only on those refugees whose departure was reported to the police. If the proportion of students was the same in the unaccounted part of the refugee group, based on the quoted Hungarian Central Statistical Bureau (K.S.H.) report, about 3550 university students than the previous year may have reached the West. However, another publication of the K.S.H. paints a different picture. According to the K.S.H.'s 1958 Yearbook, 7,900 fewer students had registered at Hungarian universities in September 1957. Their numbers declined from 40,800 to 32,900.
The day-student population declined by 4,900, from 28,900 to 24,000. This decline was not entirely due to emigration. Some students were arrested and imprisoned or expelled for revolutionary activities. The base was reduced when a large number of high school graduates emigrated and quite a few 18-year olds, many of them eager to avoid the draft, emigrated. The majority of those who did not appear on the 1957/58 university student roll in Hungary, however, left the country and hoped to continue their studies abroad. It is possible that 1,500 day students who stayed behind discontinued their studies. In that case these two K.S.H. reports do not contradict each other.
On the other hand, in January 1957, the Coordinating Committee for International Help to Hungarian Refugee Students, received a report from the World University Service that 1,800 students had left Austria each with a scholarship or the prospect of a scholarship while 3,000 students were awaiting placement. The Canadian ambassador reported from Vienna that between November 1956 and April 1957 the World University Service registered approximately 6,800 Hungarian refugee students in Austria. In Yugoslavia an additional 1,326 students were enumerated. The total now was 8,126. The Congress of Free Hungarian Students in Paris compiled a catalogue of 7,948 registered Hungarian refugee university students who left Hungary in 1956 or 1957. The definition of the term "post-secondary student" accounts for the discrepancy between the K.S.H. and the Austrian data.
The refugee students were not all regular university students. Many were evening or correspondence university or college students, high school students, or postgraduates. A few were dropouts, expelled students, individuals who pretended to be students in order to get better treatment in the West, and young non-Hungarian refugees from other communist countries who escaped to Austria by way of Hungary. All were placed on the student university lists, if requested, in collusion with the enumerators. No papers were demanded. There were also a few unregistered students who were never listed because they left Austria quickly and emigrated with the help of friends or relatives and found jobs for themselves within or outside academia. I estimate the bona fide refugee university students to be around 5,000, that is, one sixth of the total post-secondary student population. The exact number of student refugees, however, cannot be established. Certainly, most Western democracies competed for the prized immigrants and promised aid to help complete their studies. Canada was one of these countries.
During the first eight years of their rule until 1956 the communists of Hungary provided free education while restricting the access to post-secondary education for the sons and daughters of the old elite and the business classes. The forced industrialization of Hungary placed a heavy burden on the country and, at the same time, created a new demand for post-secondary graduates. Many students who belonged to a restricted category managed to gain admittance to institutions of higher learning because of the new demands, the proper connections or the falsification of credentials concerning their "class origin". As a result, the social composition of the student bodies at the universities slowly changed.
Following the death of Stalin in 1953 a political thaw began in Eastern Europe. After Imre Nagy, a reform-communist, introduced a "New Course" in Hungary with the approval of Moscow, the intellectuals led a "revolt of the mind" for greater freedom. Most college students followed them enthusiastically. Although the students were the ones who started the Hungarian revolution, few participated in the actual fighting in October 1956. Nevertheless, the defeat of the revolution gave the students cause to fear retribution or, in particular, expulsion from their university. Hungary's western borders were left unguarded or lightly-patrolled for months, and the children of the former "restricted classes" along with those students who participated in the revolution together with other students who rejected the totalitarian society saw an opportunity for freedom and equal opportunity.