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15 November 2019

Celebrating Hungary: 1956 and 1989

"Hungary’s young revolutionaries had changed how the world saw Goliath. Yes, but more importantly they had changed how the world saw Hungary and Hungarians, not as bitter-sweet ironists, witty pessimists with a death-wish, compromised realists, but as ordinary people who were also gallants, gambling against great odds and turning their losses into heroic reputation. That heroism had always been there, but now the West rediscovered it."


The 20th century, from which we are still recovering, was a harsh and cruel one for most nations but especially so for Hungary. The country suffered involvement in two world wars, massive loss of population and territory, civil war, embroilment in the crimes of Nazi Germany, foreign occupation, and almost every imaginable horror. These misfortunes did not end in 1945 when the Red Army liberated the country – for, as the ironic Hungarian joke has it: Hungary received as a punishment what the Poles and Czechs received as a gift. And in 1948 Hungary entered the long freeze of Stalinism that still endured in 1956.

If we had been in the Travellers Club that same year in London, we would probably have been discussing the Suez crisis – the biggest post-war crisis for Britain that had been rolling on throughout the summer. Outside of politics the biggest cultural event in London 63 years ago was the first night in April of John Osborne’s new play at the Royal Court Theatre, Look Back in Anger, which changed British theatre, bringing to it the literature of disillusionment and pessimism. Its central character was Jimmy Porter, a new kind of hero, the first but not the last of the anti-heroes, whose most famous and most-quoted lines ran as follows:

I suppose people of our generation aren’t able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. [...] There aren’t any good, brave causes left.

In retrospect those words now sound to me as almost too trite a theatrical cue for the uprising by Budapest students that launched the 1956 Revolution. This broke through the rooted sentiments of the artistic world and intellectual public and, more importantly, the apathy of the wider Western publics, and it quickly won their and our unstinting admiration.

It seemed to us – and I was a fourteen year-old schoolboy just discovering an interest in politics – that the Hungarian Revolution was two weeks snatched from the Heroic Age and plonked down in the 20th century. Time magazine put a painting of a generic young Hungarian revolutionary Man on the cover of its “Man of the Year” issue. And there was a young revolutionary Hungarian Woman of the Year just visible over his shoulder on the cover too – as also on the streets of Budapest. For once Time was expressing a universal opinion.

Moments before, it seemed, we had been all acclaiming the modernist anti-hero, the Jimmy Porters, in the novels, plays and films of the fifties and later. But we were doing so with some doubts about his doubts, and it was a relief to run into a hero who recognised evil, fought it bravely, and for a moment seemed to prevail, without constantly second-guessing his own motives or looking on dispassionately as his fate was decided.

Nor were we tempted to sympathise with his oppressor who happened also to be the oppressor of all. By 1956 everyone knew Goliath and his real nature. He was not the imaginary bringer of social justice whom some mistakenly welcomed in 1945. There could be no sympathy for a totalitarian regime that ran its tanks over both people’s bodies and their hopes, thus there could be no scepticism or disillusionment with resistance to Goliath whether it succeeded or failed. So when his statue was pulled down, “even the ranks of Tuscany could scarce forbear to cheer”. Such feelings were almost universal. Reporters for Communist papers in the West resigned and wrote the truth of what they saw. Communists resigned their party memberships in countries where it was safe to do so. A New Left Review was born that wanted nothing to do with the ruthless gerontocrats in the Kremlin – and a new kind of anti-Soviet Left sprang up across the West in an endless search for left-libertarian utopias in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

It helped that the Revolution was not a battle for someone else’s territory or for any objective with even a hint of moral taint. It was a Revolution by ordinary people – by workers as well as by students after the first day – to recover the simple personal liberty that people throughout Western Europe already took for granted. But it was also a popular national Revolution to recover the independence of their country from an occupying power. It was a Hungarian Revolution in which Hungarians of almost every political faction took part, with none of them manoeuvring carefully to calculate how he might emerge on top of the heap in a future Hungarian democracy.

Alas there was no Hungarian democracy in their future – not for another thirty confusing years, which both survivors and exiles spent crossing a desert of national betrayal and political seduction until eventually the promise of 1956 was finally redeemed. But thousands of Hungarians, young and old, never lived to see that day of liberation. Some died in battle, some in the prisons and labour camps of Goliath, some in exile. Even so, in those two short weeks, they had achieved astounding things. As well as wounding Goliath, as it turned out, fatally, they had wiped away the memory of 1944 and 1945 with all their sad ambiguities.

As for the wider world, everyone could see that 1956 was the moment when the Soviet Union lost whatever small shred of decency and idealism it had retained after the Nazi–Soviet Pact, Katyn, and the crushing of the East German workers’ rebellion in June 1953. The tanks that crashed back into Budapest on 4 November 1956 were those of a great power shoring up its empire. They had long ceased to represent anything like a world-spirit. Afterwards young Western leftists followed various progressive idols from Ho Chi Minh to the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, but the Kremlin apparatchiks were not among them. Soviet power embarked on a decline that hit its nadir with the velvet revolutions of 1989 and 1991 only a generation later.

That should always remind us that hopeless causes may not be hopeless at all. They may eventually triumph. As Frangois Mauriac said presciently of 1956: “When the stronger side is systematically inhumane, then perhaps the course of history is set by the will of the weaker.” And so it proved.

Hungary’s young revolutionaries had changed how the world saw Goliath. Yes, but more importantly they had changed how the world saw Hungary and Hungarians, not as bitter-sweet ironists, witty pessimists with a death-wish, compromised realists, but as ordinary people who were also gallants, gambling against great odds and turning their losses into heroic reputation. That heroism had always been there, but now the West rediscovered it. The specific significance of 1956 to Hungary is that it ended the long years of national conflict, shame, strategic ambiguity and dictatorship that began with the Béla Kun regime in 1919 and continued (with only a brief deceptive respite after 1945) until the Revolution.

Even in the John Osborne’s world of words, the Fifty-Sixers put disillusionment itself to flight too. They forced the world to concede that bravery, self-sacrifice, and love of country and one’s fellow-countrymen are qualities we need for those great causes that come along rarely, sometimes very inconveniently, but always compellingly. Goliath learned that. The rest of us should not forget it.

Of course, terrible things lay ahead for Hungary under Kádár: brutal repression, judicial murder, the long imprisonment of the heroes of 1956, general economic hardship. But the Revolution had wiped the slate clean of past sins and revealed a different Hungary – braver, clear-sighted, manifestly democratic in spirit, united in patriotism. The world recognised that too, and if some were guiltily inclined not to notice it, the new Hungarian diasporas across the globe provided an influential reminder. Let me put it as clearly as possible: for the next decade it simply was not possible to lie about Communist idealism if a Hungarian happened to be in the room.

Even those who had betrayed the nation knew that the nation – “workers, peasants and intellectuals” as the old jargon had it – had risen in pursuit of its freedom and national independence and thus against them. One senior apparatchik told János Kádár, hesitating on the brink of betrayal, that the Communists might win five per cent in a free election. At that time it was probably an over-estimate. It meant that even if Hungary was crushed, it would have to be governed by a blend of sedation and seduction rather than simple repression after “normalcy” had been restored. Kádár realised that and after the repression and murder of the revolutionaries, he governed accordingly.

But seduction weakens the seducer too, and a Communism that shrinks from repression is ultimately doomed. As Havel’s essay on The Power of the Powerless noted of next-door Czechoslovakia, totalitarianism depends on everyone, including people of modest social standing, being willing to collude with official lies. His example is a greengrocer who places a sign in his window declaring “Workers of the World, Unite”. It costs little and signifies his ideological conformity. But if he fails to do so, or withdraws it after posting it for a while, he has withdrawn his support for the system. And if others follow, the system is in crisis.

At some point in the mid-eighties, Hungarians gradually withdrew even their reluctant acquiescence from Kádár and his system, and it began, soundlessly, to crumble. Its own managers realised that it would have to cooperate with their domestic dissidents in order to ensure that the coming counter-revolution would be peaceful rather than a 1956 in reverse. Kádárism led by degrees to the “border picnic” of 1989 and the escape of vacationing “East Germans” to the West. Hungary opened its borders, the captive nations ran through the gap, and the Wall came tumbling down.

But the Wall was the climax not the cause of the collapse of the Soviet empire. The start was the revolutionary resistance of 1956 continued by the civil resistance of the later Kádár years and completed by the decisions of a post-Kádár government cooperating with civil anti-Communist movements to restore the democracy snuffed out in 1948. Just as Hungary had wounded Goliath deeply in 1956, so a later Hungary outwitted Goliath in 1989 and brought down not just his statue nor only his empire but the monster itself – in a very Hungarian way: by holding a picnic to conceal a flight of his captives. It is a privilege to celebrate their achievements tonight.

There will always be good brave causes left to fight for, and sometimes there are good brave people to fight for them.




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