60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution an uncomfortable reminder for Viktor Orban

Hungarian refugees get ready to leave the country in 1956

As Budapest prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution, survivors are divided over the immigration policies of current right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban. The 1956 Revolution ended in a brutal Soviet crackdown that saw 200,000 Hungarians flee the country, an irony not lost as Orban tries to stop modern-day refugees from entering the country. A 1956 refugee Nikolits Nadasdy says their situation was completely different to what is happening today. “We were very happy to get to a free country. But we didn’t shoot anybody and we didn’t rape women,” she said. Another 56er Janos Bak disagrees, “To handle this crisis with the best will is difficult, and almost impossible. But if you have the attitude of (Orban) then it’s disastrous.”

The responses show a divided country, a situation Orban is happy to play up. Many booed during his 1956 commemoration speech, a situation not dissimilar to what happened 10 years ago. In October 2006 police used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell protesters (many of them Orban supporters) against the then-socialist government of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany after he admitted lying to win re-election. Veterans of the 1956 uprising refused to shake hands with him at the commemoration and Orban’s opposition party boycotted events where he was due to speak.

The controversy was the main reason Orban won the subsequent election in 2010. In a speech in Germany this week Orban did not shy away from the Revolution. His view  is that Hungary fought for freedom in 1956, opened the way for freedom in 1989 by taking down the Iron Curtain and is “now acting to protect that freedom” by keeping out migrants. But this weekend’s anniversary is low-key with only one foreign head of state, Polish President Andrzej Duda joining Orban in Budapest.

The events of the fortnight following 23 October 1956 were well worth commemorating. It was the first major challenge to Soviet military power since the Second World War. What began as a student demonstration turned into a wildfire that quickly engulfed the country into a full scale revolution. It caused the fall of the central government in Budapest before the Russians intervened to crush the rebellion.

Hungary fought on the side of Germany during the Second World War. Its Second Army was annihilated at Stalingrad and Hungary looked to make peace with the Soviets. Hitler ordered Nazi troops to occupy Hungary and forced its government to increase its war effort. When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1944, the Hungarians signed an armistice, repudiated by Germany. The country became a battlefield and the last Nazi troops did not leave Hungary until April 1945. Even before the war’s end, Churchill agreed with Stalin the Soviet Union would enjoy 80 percent influence in Hungary, with Britain retaining the rest. Communists were part of a provisional government that took power after the war.

In November 1945, the non-Communist Independent Smallholders’ Party won an election. The communists used what one of their own leaders called “salami tactics” to gradually increase power by discrediting and arresting opponents. Communist leader Matyas Rakosi took control of the police and set up a secret unit called the AVH. The Smallholders party was marginalised and eventually made illegal. As relations between the Soviets and the West deteriorated Stalin pushed for a Soviet state in Hungary and the Communists took control. In 1949 the regime held a single-list election, and the government ratified a Soviet-style constitution. The Hungarian economy was reorganised according to the Soviet model. But it was performing dismally. Stalin’s death led to a new breed of leaders including Imre Nagy who became Hungarian leader in 1953. Nagy freed political prisoners and ended forced agricultural collectivisation. Hardline Communists regained control in 1955 and forced Nagy to step down. But Nagy still had support in the community. Hungarians were resentful much of the food and industrial goods they produced went to Russia while the local population starved.

On 23 October 1956, students in Budapest held a rally to support Polish efforts to win autonomy from the Soviet Union. It sparked mass demonstrations of 200,000 people. The police attacked, and demonstrators fought back tearing down Soviet symbols. Alarmed Communist leaders called out the Hungarian army, but many soldiers handed their weapons to the demonstrators and joined the uprising instead. The following day, Soviet troops entered Budapest. This enraged Hungarians and led to pitched battles with troops and state security police. Nagy became Prime Minister on October 25 and brought non-Communists into the government. He dissolved the hated AVH and promised free elections. For 12 days, Hungarians fought the Soviets in ferocious street battles. The Soviet ambassador (and future leader) Yuri Andropov publicly agreed to remove their forces from Hungary but they secretly sent new armoured divisions instead.

When Nagy found out the double-cross, he was enraged. He withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and called on the West to support it as a neutral nation. But the west was distracted by the Suez Crisis. Israel invaded Sinai, and the British and French had bombed Egypt, hoping to force the country to reopen the recently nationalised Canal. President Eisenhower kept the US out of the Suez issue and was sympathetic to the freedom movements in Eastern Europe. But he was not prepared to go to war to save Hungary. The US privately told the Soviets Hungary was in their sphere of influence and it was up to them to end the revolution.

The Soviet response was devastating. On November 3 Red Army troops bolstered by Eastern Asian regiments surrounded Budapest and closed the borders. The Asian troops spoke no European languages and were told they were going to Berlin to fight German fascists. Overnight they entered the capital and occupied the parliament building, overpowering poorly armed local forces. Nagy fled to the Yugoslav embassy as the Communists announced on state radio they had regained control. The head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, the remarkable Cardinal Mindszenty (just released after being imprisoned for eight years after the war) sought refuge in the US embassy. He would live there for 15 years until the Hungarian government let him leave the country. Meanwhile 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria before being re-settled in the West.

Over the next five years, Hungary executed 2000 rebels and imprisoned another 25,000. Nagy was arrested and supposedly deported. However two years later, Hungary admitted he was secretly tried and executed. A bitter Hungarian joke of the time expresses local sentiment:

Two men meet on the street after the revolution.
First man: you know, come to think of it, we Hungarians are very lucky people
Second man: What? You don’t mean you’ve become one of them?
First man: Oh no, but just think. The Russians came here as friends. Imagine what they’d have done if they came as enemies.

The anniversary of the Revolution may be an uncomfortable reminder of the complexity of friends and enemies to the simple message Orban wants to push through.

Melbourne’s Batman

Photo: @norton_tim

An amusing photo was posted to Twitter this week of a giant billboard in suburban Melbourne captioned “Thank you Batman – David Feeney MP”. The tweet’s poster Tim Singleton Norton added “to those unaware of the name of the electorate, I’m guessing this billboard looks extremely odd.” When I appropriated the photo for my Facebook feed I added the comments “gratitude in Gotham City” and indeed, the humorous possibilities are endless. Batman, the DC Comics character, has been around since 1939 and transformed by television, cinema and video games, is  a cultural icon as probably the world’s most famous comic book superhero. Of course, David Feeney MP is not thanking the fictional Batman but the people of the Australian federal electorate of Batman, whose name predates the comic book figure.

The Division of Batman was created in 1906 and comprises mainly working class areas of north Melbourne, traditionally a safe Labor seat. That almost changed in 2016 after a challenge from the Greens. The hapless Feeney, already with an infamous reputation as one of the “Faceless Men” who unseated Kevin Rudd in 2010 did not help his own cause when he failed to declare $2.3m property on on the parliamentary register of interests. Then he was skewered in a car crash interview on Sky News, unable to answer questions on the $4.8b Schoolkids Bonus policy. The Greens won on primary votes but Feeney scraped over the line with the help of Liberal preferences to retain the seat with a 51-49 2PP victory over the Greens. It was with much relief Feeney took to the billboards oblivious to the irony of the other Batman meaning.

The electorate was named for John Batman (1801-1839), a native Vandiemenlander, and one of the original founders of white settlement in Melbourne in 1835. Batman had a mixed reputation as a likely killer of Aboriginal people in Tasmania before treating with Victorian Aborigines. Batman died of syphilis aged 38 and his early death meant there were no portraits of him in his lifetime.

The quaker version of John Batman.

Those that survive are based on William Penn, the English quaker who founded Pennsylvania. Penn was famous for his supposed peace treaty with Delaware natives in 1683 immortalised in a Benjamin West painting “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians”. Batman was a member of the Port Phillip Association, an informal group of well-connected Tasmanians. Their self-serving yet unique attempt to treat with the indigenous bands of Melbourne was influenced by stories of Penn’s Treaty with the Shackamaxon people. The imaginary connection between the two led to the agreement the PPA struck with the Kulin people of Victoria being called “Batman’s Treaty“.

Batman claimed he signed a Treaty in 1835 with the Kulin to occupy their territory around Melbourne and Geelong. According to Batman, the Kulin consented to the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres in return for “the yearly rent or tribute of one hundred pair of blankets one hundred knives one hundred tomahawks fifty suits of clothing fifty looking glasses fifty pair of scissors and five tons flour.” Though white sealers and whalers had lived independently around Port Phillip Bay since the late 18th century, the PPA’s treaty was the first formal settlement proposal and a significant threat to the 19 counties Limits of Location the British government imposed in the Sydney hinterland of New South Wales.

The Treaty was initially respected around the Port Phillip area until complicated by the arrival of a rival settlement party from Tasmania in August 1835 led by John Fawkner. In the middle of the white men’s fight, life got dangerous for the original owners. New South Wales governor Richard Bourke was also alarmed, seeking legal advice before disavowing the Treaty. It was an awkward reminder Australia was taken up without treaties. The British view was the land belonged to the crown since Cook’s statement of possession in 1770. Though absurd to the Kulin, that statement could not be legally contested. The Treaty was abrogated but the flow of white settlers continued into Melbourne forcing the Kulin off their land. Though the Treaty died the limits of location were smashed forever. The pace of colonisation of Australia increased dramatically in the following decades.

John Batman would have been forgotten given his early death, but for another Tasmanian, historian James Bonwick. Bonwick was an evangelist troubled by British dispossession of Aboriginal people though he was more concerned by redeeming the sins of the British than upholding Aboriginal rights. He praised the short-lived Batman’s Treaty but accepted the government’s decision to abrogate it. He was more concerned about Batman’s reputation as a founder of Melbourne then about Kulin land claims.

Bonwick began a revisional process which saw Batman become a major historical figure, though those that promoted him glossed over the Treaty. What became more important was an entry in Batman’s diary about a trip up the river where Batman apparently exclaims “this will be a place for a village”. These words – taken out of context – took on extraordinary significance in narratives about Melbourne. As the grandees of Melbourne celebrated the city’s 50th and then 100th birthday, they celebrated the extraordinary growth from a “village” to a great world city. For their purposes Batman took “unoccupied” lands; the Treaty was an awkward reminder the land had prior owners dispossessed without compensation or apology.

The First Settlers Discover Buckley

Yet Batman’s image offered a ghostly reminder of that treaty. Artist Frederick William Woodhouse re-enacted Penn’s Treaty with the Indians in his own painting The First Settlers Discover Buckley. William Buckley was the convict who escaped the short-lived Victorian settlement of 1803 and lived with Aboriginal people for 32 years until he met the new settlers in 1835. Batman was not in that meeting but Woodhouse imagined he was and influenced by Benjamin West painted him in a Penn-style quaker necktie and hat. The image stuck and was passed on to all future depictions of Batman.

The Treaty found a new political purpose in the late 1960s when Victorian Aboriginal people led by Pastor Doug Nichols appropriated it for their needs. “The importance of the Batman Treaty lies in its explicit recognition that Aborigines did, in fact, own the land,” a supporter, Barry Pittock, wrote to The Age. Though Batman’s Treaty is not explicitly mentioned, it is probably no coincidence the 2016 Victorian government is the first Australian administration to publicly back a Treaty. “We understand that it’s not for us to decide what treaty or self-determination should look like,” Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Natalie Hutchins said. “We know that action needs to come from the Victorian Aboriginal community.” Like Feeney, she might have added, Thank You Batman.

Deepwater Horizon event

The Deepwater Horizon burns after the explosion. Photo: US Coast Guard

The Gulf of Mexico oil rig Deepwater Horizon was either a triumph of 21st century human engineering or one of the worst excesses of global capitalism, take your pick. For 13 years the South Korean-built monster rig plied ocean waters finding hard-to-reach oil 10,000m deep in the Gulf of Mexico until its life was ended, as was 11 people aboard, in a spectacular explosion on April 20, 2013. There followed the largest oil spill ever over 87 days until the well was finally capped.

The Hollywood film Deepwater Horizon barely taps at the surface of many of the issues but as disasters action films go, it shines a rare light on corporate excess. The movie partially focuses on the death by a thousand cuts in the lead-up and ignores the destructive aftermath to concentrate on the human element of the disaster on the day, but to that end it does a fine job.

Deepwater Horizon, the rig, had a complicated history the film alludes to in its corporate colour-coded cast. Swiss company Transocean owned the rig and flew it under the Marshall Islands flag of convenience. Almost half the world’s fleet is registered in three countries – Marshall Is, Liberia and Panama – none of which has a large maritime fleet. The flag of convenience is globalism writ large, offering economic and regulatory advantages, and increased freedom in choosing employees from an international labour pool but also anonymity, tax advantages and immunity from prosecution.

The rig had worked in the Gulf of Mexico all its life. In early 2013 the rig was in the Macondo Prospect 40km off Louisiana, a field whose exploration rights were owned by a three-company conglomerate. The majority shareholder (65%) was British multinational oil giant BP. Texan oil company Anadarko owned another quarter, with the remaining 10% with the Japanese keiretsu Mitsui. Transocean and all three field owners would suffer big financial penalties after the event but well-known BP carried the most reputational damage.

Deepwater Horizon’s primary asset was its ability to explore for oil at deeper levels than any other rig in the world. It had a great success rate in finding oil wells and was finishing off at Macondo at the time of the accident. It was considered a “lucky” rig and had a fine safety record. But as the GFC began to bite and the oil price dived, the owners and operators were looking to make cost savings whereever they could. Inevitably, maintenance suffered as the company culture changed. BP was investigated for having a “worse health, environment and safety record than many other major oil companies.”

The problem was exacerbated by a administrative conflict of interest. The US government makes big money from Gulf wells through selling off the exploration rights licences in auctions held by the Minerals Management Service. However that same Minerals Management Service was also in charge of the regulation and inspection of the oil rig. The pro-business George W Bush administration was keen to remove “red tape” from commercial enterprises. But some of that tape was holding things together. According to an Associated Press investigation MMS’s examination was performed with a lack of detail, lax regulations and poor record keeping. During its lifetime, Deepwater Horizon had six citations of non-compliance, five relating to safety and the sixth to electrical equipment.

The safety event covered in the film was the failure to test cement at the well.  The investigation found this would have cost $128,000 and taken 12 hours. BP and Transocean blamed each other for the lack of safety checks and misinterpreting the results of the checks that were performed. Neither admitted cost cutting caused the accident. BP issued a terse statement after the movie’s release to say it was not an accurate portrayal of events and it ignored “multiple errors made by a number of companies”.

Accurate or not, the film’s portrayal of the explosion was spectacular on screen. The proximate cause was a problem with the blowout preventer. Some of the 126 workers on board later testified the electric lights flickered, followed by two strong vibrations. A blowout occurred – a bubble of methane gas escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through seals and barriers before exploding.  The explosion caused an uncontrollable fire and after 24 hours, the rig sank. The nearby Tidewater-owned supply boat took 94 workers to safety. Four more made it to another vessel and 17 were rescued by helicopter. Those that died were mostly on the platform floor at the time of incident. The film Deepwater Horizon is dedicated to those 11.

The tragedy did not end there. It took almost three months to cap the oil spill and almost five million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. There was extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats in one of the most productive ocean ecosystems of the world. Oil and compounds entered the food chain leading to fish with oozing sores and lesions and pelican eggs with petroleum compounds. Several species were critically endangered and there was a sharp increase in dolphin deaths. There were also human physical and mental health consequences to those living near the Louisiana and Florida Gulf coasts.

In July 2015 BP agreed to pay a fine of $18.7 billion to the US government and five states, the largest in US corporate history. The size of the fine shows that although the regulator was compromised (and eventually split up by the Obama administration), the US court system remains a strong bulwark agains unfettered capitalism. Imagine how little BP would have paid had the accident happened in, say, Mexican waters. The company remains bullish. BP recorded a loss in September 2016 of $1.5b but the net loss includes a $5.5 billion loss for settlement in the gulf of Mexico oil spill, leaving the adjusted net income to be around $1.5 billion in profit. Its dividend is still safe.

Deepwater Horizon, the rig, was a force of nature, that ultimately was unnatural. Deepwater Horizon, the event, was a tragedy with many deep repercussions. Deepwater Horizon, the Hollywood movie plays on that tragedy for emotional reaction. BP might well say that the movie did “not reflect who we are today, the lengths we’ve gone to restore the Gulf, the work we’ve done to become safer, and the trust we’ve earned back around the world”. But the movie forces people to think about chain reactions and human agency in corporate decisions. That’s no bad thing and it deserves a wide audience.




Sully: 9/11 with a happy ending

thumbnail_24608It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood was attracted to the story of Sully. Based on the autobiography Highest Duty by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and journalist Jeffrey Zaslow it tells the “true” story of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009. President George W Bush who faced the 9/11 incident in his first year, was in his final days of office when another plane crashed in New York but as details emerged, he was relieved to say he was “inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew as well as the dedication and selflessness of the emergency responders and volunteers who rescued passengers from the icy waters of the Hudson.”

It is not hard to be inspired by the central act of the “Miracle on the Hudson”, a 9/11-style event with a happy ending. Eastwood had to defend including images of planes crashing into buildings in the film version especially as the release date was close to the 15th anniversary of 9/11. “It’s just a bad dream sequence, and what could have happened if he didn’t make the right decision,” explained Eastwood. “The spirit it gave back the city, there was no tragic loss of life.”

That there was no loss of life was primarily due to the skill of pilot Sullenberger landing on the river but was also due to the work of the emergency responders on the day. Police and firefighters suffered huge casualties in 9/11 and Eastwood takes the time to show their professionalism and calm in the Hudson crash. “No one dies here,” one responder tells a passenger, but that was not something they could say or control eight years earlier.

Other workers doing their job in 2009 were not shown in such good light. For most of the movie air crash investigators were made to look like the stock “baddie” as they attempted to prove Sullenberger could have successfully flown back to either Teterboro or Newark airports despite the catastrophe. This plot element may have been why Eastwood chose the film title “Sully” over the more media-friendly (albeit cliched) Miracle on the Hudson as the NTSB tries to sully the hero’s reputation.

The Guardian led the accusations against Eastwood calling the film a “rightwing attempt to delegitimise government – and in the process undermine the safety of millions who travel by air, train, road and boat.” They said Sullenberger’s book never showed any railroading by the National Transportation Safety Board and it was the investigators – not Sullenberger – who crucially asked a simulator pilot to wait 35 seconds before attempting an airport return, showing a return to the airport was impossible. While the Guardian has a point, Eastwood was creating drama and no-one should see the film as an accurate depiction but rather a tribute to human spirit.

The film showed Sullenberger’s dedication to duty. His overriding concern post accident was for the “155 souls” aboard, twice traversing the stricken plane to look for bodies and not resting until all were accounted for and alive. It was easy to see why New Yorkers would fall in love with Sully (the man) after the incident. Tom Hanks is the ideal everyman to play Sullenberger, slightly bemused with the media attention but focused on his job. The film does a good job of showing what the terror must have been like on board in those final moments and the computer graphics of the crash landing are impressive.

Sully is not great history, but is enjoyable cinema and works on many levels as a powerful antidote to the trauma of 9/11. In reality the only ones to suffer (apart from American International Group, US Airways’ insurer) were the Canada geese that caused the accident. As well as the flock that died when sucked into the engines, over one thousand birds were later rounded up from 17 locations in New York and gassed. As group punishment it made no sense. An estimated 20,000 geese remain in the area, and five million across the US, ready to cause the next aviation mishap.