17 November 2017

We Stared at the Radio with Open Mouths – The Dutch Reaction to 4 November 1956

"In no other land did reaction to the brutal Soviet intervention in Hungary match the visceral cri de coeur that emanated from the Netherlands in the hours and days that followed. No other foreign people so sprang back from the wound as if it had been thrust into their own side. Deeply moved, heart-sick and indignant, the Dutch witnessed the distant tragedy, and, naturally, the way in which they learned of it helped to shape their reaction. For these were not only days of outrage, but also of rare solidarity and unity."


This is Budapest”, began the live radio dispatch of legendary Dutch reporter Alfred van Sprang shortly before eight that morning. Just the tone of those opening three words, historian Hans Olink relates, stopped Dutch men, women and children in their tracks as they began their day of rest. They held their breath as Van Sprang continued: “This morning, before the break of day, the Hungarian capital was rocked by tank-missiles. A short time later, a statement from the Hungarian Prime Minister was read over Radio Budapest, announcing that Russian troops had entered Budapest.”1 As Olink describes, “With open mouth you looked at the radio, the bearer of bad news. In Dutch living-rooms, 1500 kilometres from Budapest, people were left in confusion. Outrage, grief, consternation.”2

In no other land did reaction to the brutal Soviet intervention in Hungary match the visceral cri de cœur that emanated from the Netherlands in the hours and days that followed. No other foreign people so sprang back from the wound as if it had been thrust into their own side. Deeply moved, heart-sick and indignant, the Dutch witnessed the distant tragedy, and, naturally, the way in which they learned of it helped to shape their reaction. For these were not only days of outrage, but also of rare solidarity and unity.

With no Sunday papers, the radiowhich had become ubiquitous in living memory and had been a lifeline to truth and hope during the recent occupation – was that day both the sole source of information and a means of experiencing the event with millions of others likewise glued to their devices from morning to night. “Writing about what the radio meant for our people last weekend”, a reporter reflected in De Tijd3newspaper the following day, “one cannot do better than return to that catastrophic night of 1 February 1953.” That was the once-in-a-century deluge that had overwhelmed the Low Countries three years earlier. “To recall the memories of when the grey water flooded our land and when the radio, and the radio broadcasters, inspired a solidarity that we had only known during the occupation. Yesterday it was like this again.”4

As astonishing as it was for these defining cataclysms of modern Dutch history to be compared to the suppression of a Hungarian uprising, it is yet more remarkable that a determined and defensive solidarity could be the consistent emotion linking the events. How could this be? Firstly, as suggested above, the Nazi German occupation was not only a source of comparative recollections, but a powerful and multi-faceted frame of reference with which the Soviet actions would be understood and felt. “Without difficulty”, Olink insists, “the listener could identify with the fate of the Hungarians.”

There was an immediate sense that the irresistible Soviet crushing of neighbouring Hungary was a repetition of helpless Holland’s swift capitulation before overwhelming German force, provoking instinctive empathy. On the following morning, a black- bordered picture of the three-year-old Rotterdam monument to the firebombing of May 1940 – De Verwoeste Stad (The Devastated City)dominated the front page of the left-wing daily, Het Vrije Volk. Bold-lettering above the image simply stated, Rotterdam 1940” and below it,Boedapest 1956”. Similarly, Pieter Gerbrandy, the leader in the lower house of Parliament for the main Calvinist party (ARP), proclaimed before a gathering of thousands in the second city, “With Budapest burning, we now remember our burning Rotterdam of May 1940”.5

This perceptible connection also emerged in the use of remembrance rituals to mark the Hungarian situation at that time, which were usually employed for the commemoration of the War. On 5 November, thousands gathered on the Dam in the capital city before the National Monument that had been inaugurated in May to memorialise the occupation. The two-minute silence, which serves as the central recognition of the Dutch war dead on 4 May every year, was employed and even extended on 7 November 1956 into a three-minute silence observed throughout the Netherlands. In the eastern city of Hengelo, thousands gathered at the war memorial to lay wreaths for Hungarian victims.

On the same day in the same city, representatives of the four main parties announced that they would cease cooperation with the Communist Party (CPN) member on the city council. Here we see a revealingly typical and consistent feature of the Dutch reaction to 4 November: it was against the many domestic Communists, rather than a distant Soviet Union, that Dutch outrage was primarily expressed and channelled.

 

UNITY IN ANTI-COMMUNISM

 

As intimated earlier, Dutch solidarity could be immediately perceived on the day of the Soviet intervention due to a unique outbreak of cooperation on the airwaves. This was more significant than it may seem. Radio broadcasting – as with most aspects of twentieth-century Dutch social, political, and cultural life was proportionately divided between the four pillars (zuilen) which defined a finely-tuned national system of vertical group pluralism.6 The major political parties largely represented these pillars in politics and government: PvdA for the Socialists, KVP for the Catholics, ARP (and the CHU) for the Calvinists, and VVD for the liberals (this last was the vaguest zuil as it essentially consisted of the secular financial, political and social elite against which the other zuilen each protectively cohered). In keeping with the structured verzuiling (“pillarisation”) of Dutch public life, the daily schedules of the two national radio stations were divided between programming produced by the four respective broadcasting associations.7 But on 4 November, these divisions were temporarily abandoned, as the broadcasters shared airtime and reports in a united effort to convey both the shocking events and the national response.

This was mirrored across the country in the mass meetings and protests that rapidly emerged. Describing the crowd in Rotterdam, Het Vrije Volk observed the oddity ofCalvinist next to Socialist, Catholic besides liberal, to proclaim their unanimity for freedom and democracy against dictatorship and bloody violence”, while also remarking on the memories stirred of the occupation’s last days and liberation’s first.8 Amsterdam, Utrecht, Enschede and many other places saw similar cross- party gatherings. There is no denying, as Dutch historian Duco Hellema states, that 4 November “created a moment of national consensus within the Netherlands, in a world of change and insecurity”,9 albeit with the explicit exclusion of Dutch Communists. But this was the way that verzuiling worked; groups were incorporated into the national structure and left to run their own affairs, with both public support and proportional public influence, not only according to their internal cohesion, but on the basis that these groups could be relied upon to submit to national interest and necessary compromise. Even after an arduous 122-day cabinet formation process between the 13 June lower house elections and a conclusion just ten days before the start of the Hungarian uprising, another government had been formed in which the avowedly atheist PvdA Prime Minister, Willem Drees, sat alongside ministers representing the three large religious parties. That Communists could not be included within this consensus among opposites can be understood in pre-war patterns which were as significant as wartime concepts in structuring and enabling the unifying impact of Hungarian events.


A burnt-out armoured vehicle surrounded by bystanders. All Budapest 1956 photos in this essay are printed by courtesy of Emanuel Csorba (Vienna)


 

PRE-WAR DUTCH OPPOSITION TO COMMUNISM

 

Early twentieth-century anti-Communism in Europe was often a preoccupation of conservative political forces, with a degree of fellow-feeling and overlap remaining amongst the various left-wing and “progressive” groups. But in the Netherlands – with its unusually long and strong heritage of structured political pluralism, freedom of conscience, bourgeois leadership and consensual governance anti-Communism could take root in a fundamental and pervasive anti-totalitarianism. Even before the Second World War, anti-Communism was, in historian Paul Koedijk’s words, “one of the few ideological common denominators among the different pillars in Dutch society”. The central motivations for this anti-authoritarian aversion to Communism were naturally diverse, “from a religiously inspired disgust for a ‘godless’ ideology, to the fear of a threat to economic individualism and, finally, to the conviction that Communism would lead to the end of individual liberty itself”.10 But in this way, anti-Communism was a case study of twentieth-century Dutch verzuiling, in which the differences between constituent pillars could simultaneously serve as an organic source of common affirmations.

The unanimity of Dutch anti-Communism can also be seen in the relatively early schism on the Dutch left, with Marxists leaving the main Socialist party, the SDAP, to form a revolutionary party (the SDP) in 1909.11 This made the SDP one of the earliest Communist parties in Europe, and essentially marked the self-alienation of Dutch Communists from the consensus of verzuiling. These early developments also meant that although Dutch anti-Communism was not dependent on reactions to the 1917 Russian revolution, there was a firm basis for an anti-Communist response to the Soviet Union. From 1917 until the eastward Nazi German invasion of 1941, the Dutch government resolutely refused to recognise the revolutionary Soviet government, also voting against its admission to the League of Nations in 1934. But with the Dutch Communist Party, renamed as the CPN in 1918, coming under the complete dominance of the newly-formed Comintern, and therefore the Soviet regime, anti-Communism received further cross-party justification. The CPN could from this point, not as a piece of paranoia but as a statement of fact and official policy, be regarded as a fifth column within the Netherlands.

 

THE EXCEPTION OF OCCUPATION AND LIBERATION

 

In keeping with its aims and orientation, the CPN was a peripheral player in the pre-war Netherlands. Its share of the vote in inter-war national elections never exceeded 3.4 per cent, and it had a mere 9,000 members in 1940, as well as only 30,000 subscribers to its paper, De Waarheid. But the occupation changed this. With Nazism established as the unmistakable central threat to the Dutch nation and people, the Nazis’ greatest enemy gained a credibility that Dutch Communists buttressed by significant and impressive involvement in the resistance effort. Although the unifying effect of the occupation did not mean that Dutch society organisationally cohered – Socialists, Communists and Calvinists had their own distinctive and often mutually antagonistic resistance organisations – Dutch Communists emerged from the war with a respect and status that situated them, for the first time, within accepted national life.

This was immediately manifested in party rolls swelling to 50,000, De Waarheid subscribers rising ten-fold, and remarkable electoral gains. Half a million Dutch men and women voted for the CPN in first post-war national elections of 1946, giving them an unprecedented 10.6 per cent of the vote and ten seats in the lower house as the fourth party. In Amsterdam, the CPN garnered an astonishing 30 per cent of votes cast, placing them only marginally behind the Socialists (now represented by the PvdA, which was a post-war merger between the SDAP and smaller parties) in the capital city. In fact, Amsterdam’s council elections of the same year placed the CPN ahead of its left-wing rival in first place.

What arrested this trend and returned Dutch Communists, though still larger and stronger, to their pre-war position as political pariahs before 1956? Even in these first post-war years, there was both a pragmatic and an earnest urgency to combat Communism amongst Dutch Socialists, who were, despite the CPN-surge, also stronger than ever. The results of 1946 identified the CPN as a primary rival to this prominence and ensured the attention of up-and-coming Socialists like Evert Vermeer, who, having been involved before the war in the SDAP’s campaign against both Fascism and Communism, led the PvdA effort to reverse the CPN’s success in Amsterdam. But while there was a natural degree of self-interest in Socialist anti-Communism, the PvdA was, perhaps more deeply than any European party of the left, ideologically anti-Communist. “The anti-militarist internationalism of the pre-WWII SDAP”, Giles Scott-Smith explains, “was transformed into an anti-Communist internationalism that was prepared to accept American leadership in the West against the Soviet Union.”12 Dutch Socialists were all too aware of the particular disdain that Communists had for non-revolutionary fellow left- wingers, andas early as February 1945, NVV [the main Socialist trade union in the Netherlands] representatives discussed in London with their [American] AFL counterparts the forthcoming struggle against Communism in a liberated but devastated Europe”.13 But most revealingly for our topic, the decisive turning point for post-war Dutch Communism was the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia.


The intersection of Grand Boulevard and Rákóczi Street

THE RETURN TO CONSENSUAL ANTI-COMMUNISM

 

The coup that made Czechoslovakia a dictatorship in February of 1948 was met with dismay across Dutch politics and society, with the exception of the Communists, who rejoiced. “Victory of Democracy”, proclaimed the front page of De Waarheid, adding that “their victory is also a victory for the Dutch working people”.14 By contrast, on the same day, the liberal Algemeen Handelsblad led with, “Czechoslovakia also now a Russian vassal state”. The accompanying article concluded that “the Soviet Union has struck another blow not only against the Czechoslovak people but against world peace”.15 The latter represented the common view, and the CPN brought opprobrium and disgust on its head for provocatively lauding Prague’s Soviet-backed descent into totalitarianism, with a clear eye on its Dutch ambitions. “Communists publicly claimed that the Russians ‘were closer than ever’ and that revolution was inevitably coming to the Netherlands as well.”16 The post-war illusions of Communist participation in consensual national life had been decisively extinguished, as was soon apparent.

Firstly, the landmark gains of the post-war honeymoon ebbed away. By 1950, membership in the CPN had dropped by a third since the liberation, and in the national election five months after the Czechoslovak coup, the CPN won 120,000 fewer votes (despite the fact that the PvdA also lost votes), leaving them two seats down in the lower house. Although the CPN still won a quarter of Amsterdam’s votes, Communist ballots notably dropped in the capital. In three eastern cities with significant working class populations – Almelo, Enschede and Hengelo – the CPN respectively lost, between the 1946 and 1948 elections, 22 per cent, 21 per cent, and 36 per cent of its support.17

Meanwhile, the official response to the coup, and the national security situation it helped create (see below), was even more conclusive. “First of all, Communist MPs were banned from all parliamentary commissions that discussed cases sensitive to national security, like the commissions for Foreign Affairs and Defence”, Utrecht University’s Susanne Keesman summarises. “Secondly, the CPN was excluded from radio airtime for political parties, the communist labour union (Eenheids Vakcentrale, EVC) was denied a legal status, and the government reinstated the ambtenarenverbod, which forbade civil servants from being either CPN members or De Waarheid subscribers. After the municipal elections of 1949, all democratic parties called upon their local factions not to participate in coalitions with the Communists.”18

Remarkably, in the wake of CPN support for the 1948 coup, Amsterdam’s two CPN magistrates (wethouders) who sat on the municipal executive board in proportion to their party’s presence on the council were asked to resign.


“For the country, for the people”, Hungarian tanks fighting for the Revolution


When
they unsurprisingly refused, Parliament took up the matter and passed an amendment that enabled municipalities to dismiss magistrates in mid-term, which Amsterdam utilised at the expense of its CPN wethouders in September. In 1951, Parliament even legislated to directly remove and replace the CPN- majority council of Finsterwolde in the northern province of Groningen, after many complaints over the Communists’ conduct. While debating the issue in the lower house, Johan Scheps of the PvdA, who had been arrested during the occupation for his anti-Nazi publications, linked the current Communist threat with the recent wartime past, arguing that those years had “clearly demonstrated that … if we do not take timely action against every fascist danger and extinguish every fascist fire, we will later have to reproach ourselves, with blood and tears, for what we could have done under easier conditions, but failed to do”.19

Therefore, “particularly after the Prague coup in 1948, the main Dutch political parties and associated organisations, like labour unions, shared a consensus on the necessity to combat Communism”, as historian Tity de Vries concludes, “in the international arena as well as within Dutch society” (italics added). This context of international anti-Communism, amidst Soviet domination of half of Europe and the deepening Cold War, is a crucial discontinuity in the basis of the post-war Dutch consensus. In 1945, the Netherlands emerged not only from five years of Nazi occupation, but from the wreck of its utterly discredited pre-war policy of neutrality. As the country felt its way to a new foreign policy alignment and orientation, renewed neutrality before the new military power in Europe seemed a moral and practical impossibility.

Less than a month after the coup, that Dutch period of neutrality was definitively ended with the inauguration of the Western European Union, in which the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom committed themselves to mutual defence and military cooperation. And the following April, the Netherlands was one of twelve founding members of NATO. Even as the Dutch signature was being added in Washington, DC, four thousand Communists gathering for an anti-NATO rally in Amsterdam made it clear where their loyalties lay. “The working class will not take part in a war against the Red Army, which has always been an army of peace, liberating peoples from oppression and domination”, claimed Communist trade unionist Berend Blokzijl. “The workers must therefore refuse to take up arms against the heroes of Stalingrad.”20

 

A REAL UPRISING
 

The deep and strong Dutch response to the Soviet intervention in Hungary, therefore, was no bolt from the blue. It was congruent with the pre-war consensus, wartime memories, political conditions and emerging post-war settlement. Already during the thirteen days of the 1956 uprising, there was widespread, intense and hopeful sympathy, along with active support, for the Hungarian people. The leadership of the PvdA and its chairman Evert Vermeer proclaimed, as early as October 27, that “it has been blatantly revealed that the Russian troops in the satellite countries do not preserve the peace, but rather make every effort to violently annihilate freedom and independence … The courageous uprising of the Hungarian people”, the statement continued, “must once again speak to the conscience of the Western world. More than ever, our efforts must be adapted to support the fight for freedom by all means that serve the interests of world peace.” A large demonstration had taken place in Amsterdam on 31 October in support of the verzet (resistance) in Hungary, along with many similar displays in other cities. Committees were formed to mediate aid to the Hungarians, and, in a matter of days, ambulances, food, vitamins, milk and other essentials were being sent southeast from the Netherlands with the funds rapidly raised.

And so, when the Soviet tanks returned to Budapest, many Dutch men and women, after hours of listening to the grim tidings, left their living rooms and took to the streets. Both spontaneous and swiftly organised protests, on Sunday evening and Monday, made it clear that this was regarded as not merely a Russian but also a Communist outrage against a people seeking to liberate themselves. Vermeer, who had himself been deeply involved in the resistance during the occupation of the Netherlands, named 4 November a day of treachery”, and later told a crowd of nine thousand in Enschede that the CPN’s early support for the crushing of the uprising in De Waarheid had made it also responsible for the resulting carnage. “Therefore, Dutch Communists also have blood on their hands”, he insisted, “and anyone, after Sunday, who shakes those hands is also guilty of treachery.”21

Drawing on this sense of the treachery of 4 November, the expression, “after the Sunday of treachery, the Monday of resistance” took hold, and from Sunday night into Monday crowds walked from mass protests to the various outposts of Dutch Communism. The main target of the thousands leaving the gathering on the Dam in Amsterdam was the grand Felix Meritis building on the Keizersgracht, where De Waarheid was printed, and which was attacked along with the Communist bookshop, Pegasus, around the corner on Leidsestraat. “It was a real uprising”, commented the newspaper, De Volkskrant. In an atmosphere of crackling tension and unrest, similarly large and furious crowds assaulted the Rotterdam buildings of De Waarheid, the EVC (the Communist trade union), and the CJB (the Communist Youth Association). In Utrecht, protesters carried a succinct dual message: “Hungary Must Be Free, We Demand the Banning of the Communist Party.”22 Meanwhile, back in Amsterdam, a quietly meaningful piece of resistance took place. Residents of Stalinlaan in the south of the city (the street had been so named after the War along with the intersecting Churchill-laan and Rooseveltlaan) took down the street signs, swapping them with replacements spontaneously renaming their road, 4 November Laan.

 

POWERLESSNESS

 

The urge amongst many in the Netherlands to give immediate expression to their indignation sat without contradiction alongside a palpable sense of powerlessness. The Dutch equivalent, machteloos (powerless), reverberates across many responses in the hours and days after the early morning shock of 4 November. People had listened to the news of rising waters and invading armies, in 1940 and 1953 respectively, with a defensive solidarity, knowing that nothing could halt the onrushing enemies. So it was in 1956, and that deepened the emotions immeasurably. “It is a bitter feeling to be so powerless”, Pieter Oud, the leader of the VVD contingent in the lower house, commented on the radio shortly after the news broke, “but feeling powerless is no excuse for silence.”23

The last thing the free world heard was a hopeless cry for help, help, help. That help was not offered”, mourned De Tijd. But “the Netherlands is a small country, and cannot do much against flagrant injustice”. What it certainly could do, the commentary continued, was refuse to put trade interests above morality – a close to the bone demand considering that it was the Netherlands’ status as a premier trading nation that had informed its now discredited position of neutrality before the Second World War. “May our prayer for Hungary”, it concluded, “not be a hypocrites’ prayer.”24

While one could conclude that the sense of powerlessness was reflected in the cabinet’s response, it is also fair to say that this general feeling was only heightened by the governmental expressions of inability that accompanied a tepid response from the top. Days after the people of Amsterdam had rechristened Stalinlaan as 4 November Laan, the city caught up and officially renamed it Vrijheidslaan (as it remains to this day). This was indicative of the fact that, ironically mirroring the trend in Hungary during the uprising, the official Dutch response largely lagged behind, both emotionally and practically, the response of the Dutch public.

Unfortunately, we know that our people are at this moment powerless before these events, even though our sympathy is with the Hungarians”, explained the Prime Minister, Willem Drees, adding that help would be extended, as soon as it was requested, for Hungarian refugees. “We sometimes appreciate the sobriety of Dr Drees”, De Tijd responded after a similar address two days later that also condemned some of the more excessive domestic responses, “but yesterday was the second time that, at a highpoint of national emotion, he could not find the words that touch the heartstrings.” It would be churlish to be overly critical of Drees, a naturally modest man whose steady and sound leadership was invaluable as the Netherlands slowly regained and renewed its economic and social infrastructure in the lingering austerity that it shared with much of Europe in the 1950s. But for better or worse, he undoubtedly contributed to the public–government disconnect on Hungary.

With demands for boycotts and disengagements ringing in its ears, the cabinet, meeting on 5 November, refused to either suspend diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and Hungary or support economic sanctions, while also demurring on a cultural boycott due to internal disagreement. Its only positive decision was to accept a thousand Hungarian refugees, with the number doubled a week later, due to demand and over the initial pragmatic objections of the Prime Minister. Eventually, the Netherlands would receive 3,000 Hungarian refugees, the first of whom arrived by train in Utrecht on 15 November. Even here, a lot of the cost and work was borne by civil society, as, in addition to the 16 million guilders in aid that was raised, confessional and other associations took up the cause of arriving Hungarians.25


The monument for Soviet “liberation” of Hungary – without the Red Star

But
it was not only the Netherlands’ relative weakness before Soviet military might, so reminiscent of that May 1940 trauma, or its relative incapacity before the resulting challenges, which gave the Dutch a sense of powerlessness. Despite the undoubted Atlantic orientation of post-war Dutch foreign policy, the persistent passivity of the Western powers (and especially the United States) toward the Soviet Union – before, during and after the Hungarian uprising – left many in the Netherlands deeply exasperated. Here was the powerlessness not of isolation, but of junior membership in a powerful alliance. While the resulting Dutch foreign policy response to 4 November belied an otherwise muted governmental reaction, it also demonstrated the difficulty of breaking through the restrained international diplomatic reaction to what was taking place in Hungary.


A destroyed Soviet tank at Móricz Zsigmond Circus


 

RESISTING PASSIVITY

 

The foreign minister was not at the table when the Dutch cabinet held that first post-intervention discussion of 5 November. Instead, he was in New York attending to the Suez crisis that had been simultaneously coming to a boil. Joseph Luns of the KVP (Catholic People’s Party) had gained sole possession of the Foreign Ministry portfolio (he had shared it in the previous cabinet) just two weeks before the Hungarian uprising. But the juxtaposition of these two issues that he faced in the fraught days of autumn proved emblematic of the dual frustrations facing Dutch foreign policy.

A troubled (particularly outside the PvdA) Dutch allegiance to the American-led Western alliance in the 1950s can be partly traced back to the alliance’s origins. While events in Berlin and Prague incentivised closer military cooperation among Western democracies in the late 1940s, the Netherlands also smarted at the American pressure which pushed it into acquiescing to Indonesian independence in 1949. At this time, the United States was particularly eager to be regarded as an anti-imperialist ally of emerging and newly-formed Asian and African states, but in Europe this was often seen as empowering some of the more aggressive anti-Western rulers that rose to power on the back of decolonisation. Nasser, who precipitated the Suez crisis with his July 1956 nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, and the Indonesian leader, Sukarno, who disputed ongoing Dutch sovereignty in West New Guinea, were among the most prominent of this group. Just days after Nasser’s seizure of Suez, the Indonesian government declared its intention to cease paying the debt agreed to in independence negotiations, having already abrogated central features of the 1949 treaty. The Hague was in no doubt that Sukarno had been emboldened not only by Nasser, but by the Eisenhower administration’s obliging policy toward them both. “It was not the first time”, Hellema concludes, “that the Dutch government had felt betrayed by American indifference.”26

This connected directly to the European situation because, while the Indonesian government was also drawing closer to the Soviet Union following Sukarno’s 1956 state visit and the subsequent trade agreement between the two countries, it also seemed to many in the Netherlands that the Soviet Union was gaining ground in Europe behind the appearance of improved relations. “Dutch politicians mistrusted the ‘spirit of Geneva’”, according to Hellema, “and the ‘indulgent’ attitude of the Eisenhower administration during the years 1954–6.” Meanwhile, as the Suez crisis dragged on, the Dutch press reported on 9 October that the foreign ministry had lost confidence in its American counterparts, so discouraged that they “retreated every time the Egyptians advanced”.27

With this growing unease at apparent American passivity, the Dutch Foreign Ministry faced the Hungarian uprising, with Luns admitting to the cabinet on 29 October that while its Western allies refused to apply military pressure on the Soviet Union, the Netherlands was obviously powerless to alter the situation. But it was military pressure that the head of the ministry’s East European Bureau, Simons, believed was essential because “it was possible that the Russians were afraid of a Western military intervention if they should occupy Hungary completely”.28 When the decisive Soviet intervention came on 4 November, not only the foreign service, but many Dutch opinion-makers viewed it as a vindication of their scepticism toward both Soviet intentions and Western reticence, as well as a call to change course.


Military vehicles on Roosevelt Square (today Széchenyi Square) with the Chain Bridge on the left


We now know what Russian peaceful co-existence means”, the VVD’s Oud ruefully observed. “The Russian smile, the peace-offensive, peaceful coexistence: they are suddenly forgotten”, commented Algemeen Handelsblad. With mighty weapons, unscrupulously deployed against a passionate and freedom-loving people, the Russian despots have once more shown their true face.” De Tijd, first noting that “the tragedy of Hungary has aroused not only deep dismay but also intense indignation and powerless outrage in the whole non-Communist world as well as our country”, reserved its deepest contempt for “those who, despite the bitter lessons of Hitler’s regime, let themselves be deceived, through hypocritical friendliness, about the Kremlin’s unchanging goal of Communist world-domination … It is deeply regrettable that such a bloody Soviet crime was necessary to clear up their muddled thinking.” Perhaps most sharply of all, De Telegraaf, contemplating the American position on Suez alongside the previous day’s events in Hungary, sarcastically stated, “We now know the help of the United States: no oil for England and France. Western Europe must be punished.”29

But in the days that followed, the Dutch Foreign Ministry’s attempt to respond strongly received scant diplomatic support. As it had been during the uprising, the US government remained more focused on, and critical of, the Anglo–French–Israeli action over Suez. This was completely at odds with Luns and his ministry, which instructed the Dutch ambassador to the UN, Carl Schürmann, to discredit the attempt to portray these interventions as morally equivalent. When the new UN representative of the Soviet-installed Hungarian government presented his credentials, the Dutch bid to refuse acceptance was thwarted by the refusal of the US and other Western countries to take a similar stand. “It is unfortunate that political discussions in the United Nations show increasing signs of a lack of intellectual consistency”, Luns declared, addressing the UN General Assembly at the end of November. “People in my country are profoundly shocked by the fact that a number of delegations were less anxious to make the tragedy of Hungary a subject for concerted action than to meet developments in the Middle East.”30 Reflecting profound anxieties and attitudes at home, the Netherlands stuck out its neck on the world stage both for the British, French and Israelis, and in strong condemnation of the Soviets, but was unable to advance either cause within the UN.

 

AN OLYMPIAN STAND

 

Yet there was a high profile international stage, beyond the veto of other powers, in which Dutch disgust at the Soviet outrage was powerfully expressed. Amongst all the other reactions in the Netherlands, many came to the rapid conclusion that the nation could not, in such circumstances, take part in the amity of sporting competition with the Soviet Union. Within hours of the Red Army reappearing in the Hungarian capital, the Dutch association of former political prisoners sent a telegram to the KNVB (Dutch FA), insisting that playing the Soviet Union in a football match would mock the fallen Hungarian resistance-fighters. On the same day, the Protestant and the Catholic sport associations jointly urged the Dutch Olympic Committee (NOC) to either secure the exclusion of the Soviet team or withdraw from the Melbourne games, less than three weeks away.

With some of the Dutch delegation already in the Olympic village, and the rest soon to embark on the long trip to the antipodes, the games also naturally sprang to mind because the modern Olympic movement was still associated with the ideals of international peace with which it had been launched in the late nineteenth century. Did carrying on regardless fulfil that ideal or violate it? It soon became clear that the consensus in the Netherlands was decisively in the latter camp. A cartoon in the 5 November edition of De Telegraaf depicted a monstrous looking Soviet soldier running with a pistol in his left hand and an Olympic torch in his right, the smoke of which consisted of war planes and tanks, alongside the caption, “Olympic flame to Melbourne”.

As it soon became clear, the chairman of the NOC, Linthorst Homan, needed no convincing. Speaking to the gathered NOC at Schiphol on Tuesday, 6 November, Homan confided that as he too had listened to the radio on Sunday, hearing the news of what he called a “cynical violation of all that man holds sacred”, he began to ask himself if it made sense to go to Melbourne. Reflecting on the precedent of attending the infamous Berlin Olympics of 1936, as well as competing alongside the Soviet Union for the first time in the summer and winter Games of the previous Olympiad, Homan said that they had done so “because in our optimism, and perhaps childish idealism, we cherished the hope that the good in the world would be recognised, and that our play […] could contribute to the establishment of mutual understanding”. This was indeed the modern Olympic ideal. “Then came last Saturday and Sunday.”

A telegram had arrived from the IOC, arguing that the Olympic ideal was above political disagreements. But this was no longer good enough – it rang hollow, like a cold-hearted excuse for callous indifference or timidity. “How can sport take precedence over what has happened in Hungary?” Homan asked rhetorically. “What would we think if a savage massacre of our people occurred, and others said that sport was above it? I refuse to accept this.” That very evening, on Homan’s recommendation, the NOC voted unanimously to withdraw from the Olympic Games.31

It was a hard decision, dashing the hopes of fine young athletes across the land. But it was a moment of pure solidarity with Hungary and its own more deeply dashed hopes, as was recognised when surviving athletes from 1956 were honoured in Budapest last November, receiving the medals and applause they were denied sixty years before. The boycott was the gesture of people unable to brush aside the images that had formed in their minds as they heard the news, so sadly familiar, of a mighty army entering a European city to grind down its people. They heard a cry for help that went unanswered. That morning they had stared at the radio with open mouths, and some things would never be the same.


 

Notes:


1  “Russische inval in Hongarije; 4 november 1956 door NCRV-radioverslaggever Alfred van Sprang”, NRC (2 November, 1991): https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/1991/11/02/russische-inval-in- hongarije-4-november-1956-door-6985824-a305938.M

2  Hans Olink, Amsterdam en de Hongaarse opstand van 1956”, Is Geschiedenis (1 December 2011):

http://www.isgeschiedenis.nl/archiefstukken/amsterdam_en_de_hongaarse_opstand_van_1956/.

3  De Tijd was a national Catholic newspaper that has since closed.

4  In verbijstering luisterde de wereld naar de radio”, De Tijd (5 November 1956).

5  Massaal Nederlands protest tegen onrecht in Hongarije”, Het Vrije Volk (6 November 1956).

6  It was vertical group pluralism as opposed to the class-based pluralism in which parties and other organisations represent strata of society.

7  VARA (Socialists), KRO (Catholics), NCRV (Calvinists) and AVRO (liberals).

8  Massaal Nederlands protest tegen onrecht in Hongarije”, Het Vrije Volk (6 November 1956).

9  Duco Hellema, “The Relevance and Irrelevance of Dutch Anti-Communism: The Netherlands and the Hungarian Revolution, 1956–57”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 30 (1995), 182–83.

10  Paul Koedijk, “The Netherlands, the United States, and Anticommunism during the Early Cold War”, in Four Centuries of Dutch–American Relations: 16092009, edited by Hans Krabbendam, Cornelis A. van Minnen and Giles Scott-Smith (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 597.

11  The SDAP stood for Sociaal-Democratische Arbeiderspartij, while SDP was the Sociaal-Democratische Partij.

12  Giles Scott-Smith, Networks of Empire: The US State Department’s Foreign Leader Program in the Netherlands, France, and Britain, 1950–70 (Brussels: Lang, 2008).

13  Koedijk, 600.

14  Overwinning der Democratie”, De Waarheid (26 February 1948).

15  Ook Tsjechoslowakije nu Russische Vazalstaat”, Algemeen Handelsblad (26 February 1948).

16  Constant Willem Hijzen, “The Perpetual Adversary: How Dutch Security Services Perceived Communism (1918–1989)”, Historical Social Research 38 (2013), 182.

18  Susanne Keesman, “The Communist Menace in Finsterwolde: Conspiring against Local Authorities? A Case Study on the Dutch Battle against Communism, 1945–1951”, Historical Social Research, Vol. 38, No. 1, 215–6.

19  Ibid., 216, 227.

20  Ruim vierduizend Amsterdammers verklaren: Wij zullen geen broedermoordenaars”, De Waarheid (4 April 1949).

21  Massale protestdemonstraties in het gehele land”, De Tijd (6 November 1956).

22  Hongarije moet vrij, wij eisen verbod van de communistische partij.Ruiten van Waarheid boeten voor Hongarije Rotterdam: “Njet, njet”, Het Vrije Volk (5 November 1956).

23  Prominenten voor de radio Vermeer: 4 november, dag van het verraad”, Het Vrije Volk (5 November 1956).

24  Vrijmoedig commentaar”, De Tijd (5 November 1956).

25  Hellema, 175–81.

26  Duco Hellema, “Backing Britain: The Netherlands and the Suez Crisis”, Diplomacy & Statecraft, Vol. 4, No. 1, March 1993, 42.

27  Hellema, “The Relevance and Irrelevance”, 171; Koedijk, 603-4; Hellema, “Backing Britain”, 46–47; “Daily Telegraph ‘Onbehagen in Nederland’ Over Amerikaanse politiek”, De Tijd (9 October 1956).

28  Hellema, “The Relevance and Irrelevance”, 171–72

29  Massaal Nederlands protest”, Het Vrije Volk (6 November 1956); “Dag der schande”, Algemeen Handelsblad (5 November 2016); “Vrijmoedig commentaar”, (P2) De Tijd (5 November 1956); “De zonde van Jalta”, De Telegraaf (5 November 2017).

30  Hellema, “The Relevance and Irrelevance”, 177–79; Hellema, “Backing Britain”, 53.

31  NOC-voorzitter in bewogen rede: Sport staat niet boven Hongarije”, Het Vrije Volk (7 November 1956); “Olympische Spelen, Melbourne 1956”, Andere Tijden: https://anderetijden.nl/ aflevering/647/Olympische-Spelen-Melbourne-1956.




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