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

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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. However 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 deeply 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 now 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 decidedly 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 and a full scale revolution. It caused the fall of the central government in Budapest before the Russians intervened to crush the rebellion.

Hungary had fought on the side of Germany during the earlier 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 had ended, 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 slowly marginalised and eventually made illegal. As relations between the Soviets and the West deteriorated Stalin pushed for the creation of 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 much support in the community. Hungarians were resentful that 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 in support of 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 was named Prime Minister on October 25. He 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 otherwise engaged in the Suez Crisis. The Israelis had invaded Sinai, and the British and French had bombed Egypt, hoping to force the country to reopen the recently nationalised Suez 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 regiments from Eastern Asia surrounded Budapest and closed the country’s 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 apparently 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.

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