In a 1958 article “Totalitarian Imperialism: Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution,” published in the Journal of Politics and intended as an update to her seminal Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt called the Hungarian uprising of 1956 a “spontaneous revolution”: a rare occurrence that erupted unexpectedly, without a preceding and destabilizing military defeat or a close-knit group of organizers. For the first time, this revolution also ignited the possibility that the seemingly monolithic Soviet empire could be toppled from within. Even though it lasted less than two weeks, from October 23 to November 4, and ended when Soviet troops entered Budapest and violently crushed the uprising, this revolution thrust Hungary onto the stage of world politics. Yet, 60 years later, the memory of the 1956 revolution in Hungary remains unsettled, deeply contested, and instrumentalized for sectarian political objectives on each side of the political spectrum.
My personal memories related to the October 1956 uprising date back to June 1989, to witnessing the dramatically choreographed reburial ceremony of Imre Nagy, the 1956 Hungarian Premier who was executed (along with three other government officials and a journalist) in 1958 for his involvement in the revolution and then buried in an unmarked grave. The ceremony was attended by well over 100,000 people — a crowd of alarming proportions in a socialist regime that restricted free assembly — and became an important milestone in the democratization process that led to the full-scale collapse of socialism one year later. The 1989 reburial ceremony at Budapest’s Heroes’ Square was also the occasion that catapulted young Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s current Prime Minister, into the limelight of national politics. Foreshadowing the combative style that has become his trademark, Orbán’s provocative speech, which included a call for Soviet troops to leave Hungary, was risky given the precarious political climate at the time and clashed harshly with the solemn and conciliatory mood of the event.
Then, a few years later, in the early 1990s I decided to write on the 1956 revolution for my senior thesis for my high school baccalaureate. The archives were just opening up their vast stacks of classified documents, and it was exciting to pore over some of this material. I was particularly smitten by transcripts of the radio broadcasts during the revolution, which eventually became the subject of my thesis. In the analog age of the 1950s, radio was the mass medium that reached the broadest public, promising the most up-to-date coverage of current affairs.
My mother, who was a teenager in 1956 growing up in a small village, confirmed that the radio was their only link to the rapidly evolving chain of events, as most of the action was concentrated in Budapest and some larger cities. Reporting was sporadic, unreliable, sometimes hysteric, and often interrupted by long gaps in news broadcasting. In these protracted intervals, the radio played old recordings of classical music in an endless loop, most prominently Beethoven’s stirring Egmont Overture. For many contemporaries who lived through the events, including my mother, hearing this piece still elicits the alternating horrors and exuberance of those turbulent fall days of the revolution.
For more than just Hungary, 1956 was in many ways the first truly global media event — something equivalent to the Arab Spring in an age before social media. Correspondents from all over the globe were flown in to follow and report on the popular uprising that took the world by surprise. Audiences in the United States and Western Europe could watch nearly live the painful agony of the revolutionaries who felt abandoned and betrayed by Western democracies idly standing by.
Nevertheless, for Western media, the revolution was a rewarding subject. Coverage culminated when Time magazine named the “Hungarian Freedom Fighter” its 1956 “Man of the Year” and printed the image of a young Hungarian freedom fighter on its cover. In a tragic twist, the extensive mediatization of the events backfired in unexpected ways. Photos and newsreel footage shot by Western correspondents were used during the Communist crackdown to identify and persecute “counterrevolutionaries.”
Fallout from the revolution also triggered the first mass refugee crisis of the postwar era. This was given newfound resonance at the height of last year’s migrant and refugee crisis in Europe, when Syrian refugees began to march on foot from Budapest’s Eastern Railway station toward the Austrian border. After the Soviet Army crushed the 1956 revolution, approximately 200,000 Hungarians left their homeland, the vast majority within a matter of a few weeks, crossing the border on foot into Austria. The refugee camp that was set up in Traiskirchen, a small town near Vienna, to process Hungarian refugees was also used last year to house migrants and refugees arriving en masse on the West Balkan route.
The media repeatedly evoked eerie parallels between last year’s flood of refugees and the post-1956 Hungarian refugee crisis, primarily in their criticism of the Hungarian government’s callous attitude toward asylum seekers. Differences between the two episodes are as numerous as the similarities. Yet, the swift international response in 1956 — wherein Hungarian refugees were distributed among 29 countries, with the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, West Germany, and Switzerland accepting the largest contingents — carries useful lessons about how such mass exoduses can be managed effectively.
Hungary has never managed to come to terms with the legacy of 1956; commemorations have almost always been mired in strategic distortions and spectacular controversies. For more than 30 years, the communists called it a counterrevolution and consistently silenced any alternative reading of the events. The redeeming experience of Nagy’s reburial in 1989 proved to be fleeting, and political feuding over 1956 continued with a vengeance a few years later. In 1992, then-President Árpád Göncz, who had served a six-year prison sentence for his role in the 1956 revolution, was booed by right-wing thugs in front of Parliament, preventing him from delivering his memorial speech at the official celebrations for the revolution. Socialist governments have also failed to genuinely embrace the memory of 1956 because, ultimately, they could not shed the fact that they were the communist successor party. Meanwhile, conservative governments with their loud anti-communist rhetoric could not quite deal with the many dedicated communists, including Nagy, who wholeheartedly supported the revolution.
But, undoubtedly, the most disgraceful commemoration took place in 2006 on the 50th anniversary of the events. The memorial celebrations on October 23 turned into violent street riots, triggered chiefly by a speech by recently reelected socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány that was delivered at a private Socialist Party event but then leaked to the media. In it, Gyurcsány disclosed that the Socialist Party’s election campaign was built on blatant lies about the state of the Hungarian economy.
In a tragicomic moment at the height of the riots, a retired mechanic jumped into an old Russian tank that was installed as a prop for the anniversary celebrations, miraculously managed to restart it, and drove it in the crowd for almost 100 yards to the astonishment of onlookers. This year’s 60th anniversary was also bursting with animosity, though the resulting clashes were more farcical than dangerous. Gray-haired elderly government sympathizers fortified with walking sticks and attending the official ceremony in front of Parliament got into fistfights with young opposition supporters equipped with whistles and aiming to disrupt Prime Minister Orbán’s memorial speech.
Reconciliation has continued to fail in part because 1956 was a chaotic affair, rife with contradictions. Peaceful demonstrations quickly escalated into armed resistance against a foreign oppressor and its local henchmen. The images of lynched officers and foot soldiers of the loathed Communist secret police hanging from trees in front of the Communist party headquarters in Budapest — endlessly exploited by Communist propaganda in the following decades — were as shocking and disturbing as the open discussions of university students and the transformation of factory workers’ councils into instruments of grassroots democracy were uplifting.
The events mobilized people from an unusually broad swath of society, and in this sense, 1956 was a truly popular uprising as Arendt noted. But this farrago also entailed participants with wildly divergent aims, motivations, and social backgrounds. Young street fighters, some no more than 14 or 15 years old, were probably in it for the thrill of the adventure. Many university students, writers, and intellectuals were interested in reforming and democratizing rather than overthrowing communism. Former supporters and sympathizers of the interwar, proto-fascist Horthy regime as well as high-profile conservative Catholic clerics like Cardinal Mindszenty may have longed for some sort of restoration of the pre-1945 social order. They all projected their hopes for change on the canvas of the revolution, but the change they envisioned was not only vaguely formulated, but also deeply discordant.
Although 1956 was a largely leaderless revolution, its key political figure, Imre Nagy, aptly personified these inherent contradictions. He went from being a hardline Muscovite communist cadre who oversaw the forceful collectivization of agriculture after the war, to announcing Hungary’s return to a multiparty system and its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact (i.e., essentially from the Soviet bloc) in 1956, to becoming a martyr of the revolution. Yet, instead of somehow embracing these inconsistencies and complexities, every Hungarian government since 1956 has labored hard to reduce what happened to a one-dimensional narrative that best served its immediate political interests.
Not surprisingly, the two Cold War superpowers entertained their own version of events in which they played the lead roles and citizens of small nations could appear as extras at best. The Russian stance has changed little over the years, as evidenced by how Russia’s state TV “commemorated” 1956 during this year’s Hungarian anniversary celebrations. The important history lesson was delivered by one of the most powerful figures of Russian state media — Dimitri Kiselyov, the deputy director of Russian state TV and head of Russia’s government-owned international news agency. Viewers learned how the 1956 revolution in Hungary was plotted by the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies to induce “bloody chaos” and how the protests escalated into a pogrom and civil war that involved freeing thousands of former Nazi supporters from the communist prisons. Soviet troops, the lesson went, had intervened only to restore peace and prevent further bloodshed.
How Americans remember is best captured through popular culture, and the events of 1956 feature prominently in The Company, a 2007 television miniseries about the activities of the CIA during the Cold War. The protagonist, a young CIA agent, is sent to Budapest on the eve of the revolution to deliver a message to a group of political dissidents led by a charismatic poet. The agent tells them they should wait because the United States will not be able support an uprising. After being abducted and tortured by Hungarian secret police, the agent is eventually rescued by the revolutionaries. He then uses his boss to lobby the CIA to back the freedom fighters, but President Eisenhower refuses and the revolution is crushed. In short, without US support, the revolution was doomed to fail, but key ideals such as freedom and democracy that inspired the revolutionaries remained closely associated with America.
All in all, I would still like to think that Hungary’s 1956 was a rare instance of unrehearsed patriotism — a loud though not fully articulated cry of a people for freedom, sovereignty, and the right to self-governance that quickly vanished into the void of ruthless Cold War geopolitics. Though probably wishful thinking, I hope that one day Hungarians will celebrate this epic historical moment in unity and with dignity, honoring the memory of all those who fell, who were persecuted, and whose lives were crushed in the aftermath as well as the hundreds of thousands who were driven from their homeland carrying with them a lost promise of a better Hungary.