Hungarian revolution of 1956

After some hesitation Hungary declares war on the U.S. and the EU

The title of yesterday’s post was “The Hungarian government turns up the heat on the NGOs.” Well, today it took on both the United States and the European Union.

After some initial hesitation when János Lázár profusely praised the United States and extolled the friendship between the two countries, it seems that the decision was reached within the closest circle around Viktor Orbán that Hungary will not be “intimidated” by anyone. Hungary will strike back. Within a day Lázár was instructed to change his tune and attack the evil United States. Although he hid his message to the United States on the website of his hometown, Hódmezővásárhely, by today all the nationwide papers and internet sites reported on Lázár’s new attitude toward the United States and the European Union. He accused the United States of treating Hungary like an unequal partner and alluded to the so-called “gendarme pertue,” a reference to the practice during the Horthy period according to which the gendarmes used the familiar form of address with the peasants while the rural inhabitants had to use the formal with the gendarmes.* Being loyal to the European Union does not mean being a yes-man. Budapest is a faithful ally of Washington–and not because it dares not demand proof of serious allegations.

National holidays always come in handy for politicians, and the anniversary of the 1956 October Revolution couldn’t have come at a better time. In the last couple of days several top politicians linked the events of 1956 with the current crisis. Lázár illustrated the democratic impulses of Hungarians by appealing to the 1956 events. Who would ever question the Hungarians’ total commitment to freedom and democracy? But the Hungarians were let down by the West. “If October 23 is the glory of the Hungarians, then November 4 is the shame of America and Western Europe.” Hungarians were duped and abandoned so often that by now they are extremely cautious. In his opinion, “the bankruptcy of the regime change is demonstrated by the fact that the slavery of the East was replaced by the tutelage of the West.” This happened because in the last twenty years Hungary had political leaders who did not represent the interest of the country but who stood for foreign interests within Hungary. “In 1990 Hungarians regained their freedom but they needed twenty years more to dare to exert their rights. Well, now we dare!… We are responsible for our lives but at the same time we have the right to live our lives on our own terms.” At the end of this declaration of war, Lázár expressed his belief that the world will understand the Hungarian position and will slowly accept this new reality. “We ask only what is our due: neither more nor less.”

Expropriating 1956--a real shame

Expropriating 1956–a real shame

Lázár’s note was followed by László Kövér’s even more specific references to Hungary’s possible new course. In an interview on the far-right Echo TV Kövér ruminated on Hungary’s relation to the European Union. For him it was the Tavares report that was the last straw because the European parliament “thinks they can tell us how to behave. In this respect Brussels reminds me of Moscow. It was customary in Moscow to call together the party secretaries of the socialist camp and publish joint communiqués … in which they told us what the member states can and cannot do. If that is the future of the European Union, then it is worthwhile to contemplate that perhaps we should slowly, carefully back out.” He quickly added, “I’m convinced that this is just a nightmare and that this is not the future of the European Union, although some people seriously think that the EU should move in this direction.”

Even the staff of Mandinera gathering place of the younger conservative generation, thought that drawing a parallel between Moscow and Brussels was “stupid.” And the author of the article listed some of the fallacies in Kövér’s contention. It was our sovereign decision to join the Union; we are members of the EU and not subjects as in the Soviet bloc; we can veto certain decisions unlike in the old days; there are no occupying forces in the country; we receive more money from the EU than we pay in; and finally, one of the official languages of the EU is Hungarian, while during the Kádár regime Russian was compulsory.

The last attack on the United States came from Gergely Gulyás, one of the few smart politicians in an otherwise intellectually undistinguished party. He was in Berlin when he delivered a speech at the Hungarian embassy on the Hungarian revolution of 1956. After a historical overview of what happened to Hungary between 1945 and 1990, he went straight to the question of democracy in Hungary. There can be no question that for the Hungarians “democracy is a sacred value for which they shed their blood.” The memory of the revolution is an eternal reminder that Hungarians live in a country of laws which are written down in the constitution. “Our freedom of today springs from our revolution of 1956.”

Well, it was here that I could hardly retain my composure. These people try to justify their undemocratic, illegitimate regime by appealing to the blood and sacrifice of the revolutionaries of 1956. And that is not all. He had the temerity to claim that those who question the existence of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary insult the memory of the heroes of the revolution.

Meanwhile, on another front, The Hungary Initiatives Foundation, which operates in the United States as a propaganda arm of the Orbán government, has lost almost half of its board members. Those who left are George E. Pataki, former governor of New York; Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, daughter of U.S. representative Tom Lantos and vice chair of the United States Commission on International and Religious Freedom; Susan Hutchison, executive director of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences; and Michael J. Horowitz, former director of the Hudson Institute’s Project for Civil Justice Reform and its Project for International Religious Liberty as well as a founding member of 21st Century Initiatives. Those remaining are former American ambassdor April H. Foley; Tamás Fellegi, a former member of the Orbán government; Dr. John P. Lipsky, former first deputy managing director of the IMF; Ambassador Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership; and Edith K. Lauer, chair emerita of the Hungarian American Coalition. Even among the remaining five we see some dissent. Kurt Volker, who used to be a steadfast supporter of Viktor Orbán, had some very harsh words about the latest Hungarian development in an interview with Péter Morvay in Washington.

Ágnes Vadai of the Demokratikus Koalíció reacted to the László Kövér interview by saying that anyone who wants to lead Hungary out of the European Union is “an enemy of the country.” As are those who blaspheme the memory of 1956.

*Apparently, gendarme pertu also means a slap in the face by the officer instead of greetings.

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Gyula Horn’s reminiscences of his role in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

I indicated in one of my comments to the discussion on Gyula Horn that I would touch on his controversial role after the failure of the Hungarian Uprising of  1956 when for five or six months he served in the militia that was set up to keep order.

But first I would like to call attention to an obituary written by the director of the House of Terror and a friend of Viktor Orbán, Mária Schmidt. It is a most positive assessment of of Gyula Horn’s career. Schmidt thinks that Horn was a great statesman and a patriot “who did what the homeland asked him to do.” Most of us are familiar with Mária Schmidt’s political views. She is a fierce anti-communist. If I wrote something that glowing about Horn I would be called a Bolshevik by some of the right-wing readers of this blog. I highly recommend that they read her words.

In addition to Horn’s autobiography I discovered in my library a book, Here we are, Europe!, that is “a portrait of Gyula Horn.” It was published in 1990 with an introduction by Hans-Dietrich Genscher. In it I found a Hungarian translation of a very long article by Georg Paul Hefty from the February 1990 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which is as eulogistic as the obituary of Schmidt. I might also mention that  Hefty is a true conservative who to this day is a fierce supporter of Viktor Orbán.

Before I move on to Horn’s controversial role in 1956, I think I should say something about his family background. Horn’s father joined the Red Army in 1919 and spent four years in jail after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.  He got married shortly thereafter and sired one child after the other. As Horn says, one every three years.  Altogether Horn’s mother gave birth to eight boys, out of whom seven survived. The family lived in extreme poverty.

Throughout the interwar years Horn’s father was in and out of jail although he didn’t seem to have especially close relations with the illegal communist party. Perhaps he just had a big  mouth. After the German occupation of Hungary (March 19, 1944), he was taken prisoner and killed near Sopron. Horn’s oldest brother Géza lost his eyesight in one eye as a teenager because two policemen beat him so brutally, apparently for no good reason. As Horn remembers, the two policemen didn’t like “prolis,” an abbreviation of “proletarians” and a derogatory term. He himself was beaten badly by a traffic cop because, while carrying two or three boxes for delivery, he wasn’t crossing the street fast enough.

Géza Horn joined the illegal communist party early on. It was he who served as a kind of teacher to Gyula, supplying him with Marxist-Leninist literature. After the war, during the coalition period, the Hungarian Communist Party immediately began recruiting adherents and party workers and the Horn family, given their association with the party even before 1945, was much favored.

The mother was sent to party school while Géza and Gyula were sent to a quickie course that gave them a high school diploma in one year. Both of them were then sent to university in the Soviet Union. Gyula studied finance and received a “red diploma” for earning straight As.

After returning to Hungary he got a job at the ministry of finance. His job involved checking VAT payments, which meant a lot of traveling all over the country. He saw the misery the Rákosi regime had inflicted on the country and the Hungarian people. He also sensed the growing dissatisfaction of the populace. Even his oldest brother Géza, who was truly committed to the cause, kept saying “this is not what we were fighting for.”

On the day the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 broke out Horn happened to be in Szeged. He had a rather hard time getting back to Óbuda where his wife was in the late stages of pregnancy with their first child. A sidenote, just to give you an idea of the fluidity of the political situation during the revolution, one of Horn’s younger brothers joined the revolutionaries and eventually became one of those 200,000 refugees who fled and settled in the West.

Horn himself was a member of the National Guard created by the Imre Nagy government. He patrolled the streets with an ID in hand bearing the signature of General Béla Király. I read somewhere that Horn and some of his friends briefly contemplated leaving the country. They even had a truck ready for the journey.

On the other hand, Géza, though not totally satisfied with the Rákosi regime, kept worrying about the future of the socialist state. After the failure of the revolution he helped organize the new communist party, Kádár’s MSZMP.

The Hungarian militia / mult-kor.hu

 Hungarian militia men / mult-kor.hu

Once it was all over, on December 12, Horn and six of his colleagues in the ministry of finance–among them all those who had studied in the Soviet Union–were asked to join a new battalion that was set up by the Budapest Police Captaincy. They were supposed to guard the bridges across the Danube because there were rumors that the revolutionaries wanted to blow them up.

The next day a terrible tragedy befell the Horn family. Géza, by then a film director and always Gyula’s favorite brother, was bicycling to work when a truck purposely struck him and he was subsequently beaten to death. They never found the perpetrators.

After about a month of guarding bridges at night Horn’s team was given a new job. The police recreated the “R Group,” originally used after 1945 to check the growing lawlessness during the very hard times. Horn and his colleagues were sent to this group not so much to apprehend criminals as to act as guards at pubs, railroad stations, and other public places.

Eventually, however, they ended up in investigative work. It turned out that one of these investigations also included beating the suspects.  Horn and his best friend in this group tried to intervene, but they were accused of betraying the cause. Soon enough came an investigation of the case by a high-ranking police officer.  Horn allegedly told him that “we didn’t sign up for this kind of work.” The police officer promised an investigation, but as Horn laconically remarks, “it is not known what happened to the promise, but it is a fact that we were no longer ordered to take part in this type of work.” He was demobilized in July 1957.

In the 1990 publication he told the reporter, Sára Pogány, whose interviews make up the bulk of the slim volume, that “we never used force against anyone.” When Pogány asked him whether he had any appetite for revenge, Horn categorically denied it. One can believe him or not. Mária Schmidt rightly points out that during the Kádár regime it was in his best interest to exaggerate his role in 1956-57 while after 1989 it was in his best interest to belittle it. But, as she notes, we don’t have historical evidence one way or the other. It is possible that Gyula Horn wasn’t important enough to leave behind much of a footprint. So, for the time being we will have to be satisfied with what he himself told us.