October/November 1956 occurred at the exact moment that I was entering both actual and political adolescence. Boys of my age — I became fourteen in April of that year — were fighting and ferrying the wounded in Budapest that Fall. It was a crash course in political maturity. I was studying for my English GCEs which included Latin, Greek and Ancient History but not more “relevant” subjects. In retrospect that did not matter. Watching and hearing the news bulletins that Season was a crash course in modern European history.
Not that I was unaware of Hungary and its achievements. No English schoolboy was. When the Hungarian soccer team thrashed us at Wembley in 1953, their game was the admiring talk of the playground next day. I have to boast about our English “fair play”. We acknowledged their superiority fair and square and relished the new and more rapid soccer they had introduced to its original birthplace. Puskás was a hero even if we could not pronounce his name. And if we had known nothing else, we would have recognised the right side when the news from Budapest came that he refused to return to Hungary after the putting down of the Revolution.
Three years later we did know more, of course. And if I knew somewhat more than most, it was probably because I was a Catholic — and one with burgeoning literary and theatrical tastes. Though the British media reported the Communist takeover of Central and Eastern Europe pretty well, the Catholic press (such as the intellectual weekly The Tablet and the tabloid Universe) gave us a far more thorough and regular account of how religious and other freedoms were systemically suppressed and replaced by an ideological monotone. The show trial of Cardinal Mindszenty, which distilled this repression into a single vivid and photogenic example, was given full coverage in Catholic newspapers. We prayed for the Cardinal and the Church of Silence on Sundays. Young Catholics were therefore slightly more aware of Central European realities than their non-Catholic fellows — and those who went to serious plays and films still more so. Bridget Boland, a talented Anglo-Irish Catholic playwright and screen-writer, wrote a fictionalised version of the Mindszenty case, The Prisoner, that became first a play and then a film starring Alec Guinness as Mindszenty and Jack Hawkins as his interrogator. It is intellectualised, perhaps over-intellectualised, as well as fictionalised, but it leaves no doubt as to which was the right side and who the hero. When the Cardinal was released from his grim prison by the 1956 revolutionaries, he was another confirmation of the truth that a great struggle, one other-worldly as well as of world historical importance, was being waged in Hungary.
That is not to say that Hungary’s revolution was not my sole preoccupation as it inevitably was for my Hungarian contemporaries such as the young Géza Jeszenszky, then ferrying supplies and helping the wounded behind the barricades. How could it be? But it happened at just the right moment to strike my imagination. I had only recently discovered politics as a result of reading a good popular biography of Disraeli by Hesketh Pearson and, like so many others, being entranced by his dizzying romantic career — for instance, stating “the British Empire” as his collateral when he borrowed money from Lionel de Rothschild to finance his purchase of Suez Canal shares to ensure control of that imperial lifeline. I had decided that I was a Conservative, and had gone to the extreme extent of applying to join the Conservative Party, adding one year to my age to do so. The local Tory party agent, whose job it was to recruit members, smiled sceptically at me and said: “Even if you are fifteen, which I doubt, you shouldn’t get involved in politics for years yet. It’s not a nice business. Don’t squander your youth on it. Play cricket, chase girls, and if you still have the political bug in ten years, come back then.”
In retrospect again, I rather like that old-fashioned English spirit. I wish it were universal. But it is not. And 1956 was a particularly bad year for it — the year not only of the Soviet suppression of Hungary but also of Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Suez was a crisis that ran throughout that entire Summer — as Clarissa Eden said it ran through her dining room in Downing Street — and as a newly-minted unofficial Tory, I burned with indignation at the failure of the international community to unite against another dictator and defend Disraeli’s legacy. I was a fierce supporter of Anthony Eden and his decision to “intervene”.
I still do support the Suez intervention, though less fiercely, but my reasons today are very different from the self-righteous jingoism I then felt. Nor did my reasons of that time atrophy. Quite dramatically they were swept away by my response to what was happening in Budapest. It was a simple reaction, but then it was a reaction to a simple situation. Good people were resisting bad people; Hungarians were rejecting their oppressors; free people were overthrowing Communist tyranny; young people were fighting tanks. All those agonising dilemmas that dominate the minds of modern progressive people — which of two evils to choose, how to navigate through different shades of gray — simply did not apply. Justice and liberty were on the one side; tyranny, murder and bad faith were on the other. Some AVH [State Security] men were lynched; that was deplorable and deserving punishment; but it did not affect the overall moral calculus of the Revolution more than an iota.
These truths were made flesh in the young people in belted macs, holding stolen guns and carrying Molotov cocktails, who ran across squares under fire and built flimsy barriers against tanks. And they were then transmitted to the world in grainy photographs and black-and-white newsreels that seem today both authentic and a metaphor for authenticity in a deceptively colourful world.
Were there moral complications in the revolution that make my own uncritical and open-hearted support for the revolutionaries look naïve today? I did not think so then, and I do not think so now. Moral complications intruded very quickly in the absolute determination of the West to discourage any thought of practical sympathy for the Nagy regime and in the decision of the international community to “prioritise” Suez. I still remember clinging in my indignant heart to all the bitter jokes about a United Nations intervention being a more “miraculous” possibility than that of the Archangel Michael. Much later János Kádár invested massively in moral ambiguity (and derived good returns from it) to sustain his cunning and corrupting regime under Russian protection. At the time, however, the most morally ambiguous aspect of the revolution was that a few of the young revolutionaries still called themselves Communists. The best answer to that, however, was an adaptation of an old Jewish Mother joke: “To me you’re a Communist; to your father you’re a Communist; but to a Communist are you a Communist?” When the real Communists returned in the Red Army’s baggage train, the pretend Communists showed their true democratic colours by fighting to the end or crossing to the West or being transported to prison camps or suffering some combination of these fates.
A cold peace in the Cold War was gradually restored.
But we in the West had changed. The Budapest correspondent of Britain’s Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, wrote the most eloquent despatch possible in their praise: a letter of resignation. In general the Western media proved better than their governments by telling the truth of the revolution passionately. Even the West’s governments proved generous in offering sanctuary to Hungarian exiles. The exiles themselves both gave the Hungarian people a good name and provided a standing rebuke to any Western sympathisers with “really existing socialism” in the Soviet bloc. For a decade or more it was impossible for any intelligent person to see Soviet Russia as anything other than a monstrous tyrannical Leviathan with Hungary as its most courageous victim.
And though I did not realise it at the time, I had changed more than most. Listening to Imre Nagy’s broadcast via the BBC, knowing it would not elicit any help and that the Hungarian people were doomed to many decades of Soviet rule, I wept with frustration. I felt a strong sense of loyalty to Hungarians on both sides of the Iron Curtain. For me 1956 was like the Spanish Civil War to a young socialist in the 1930s. It awoke my serious political imagination. Thereafter Hungary was a great power in my mental map of the world. There was not a great deal I could do about it. And for many years after 1956, as my Tory friend advised, I mainly played cricket (actually tennis) and chased girls, pretty ineffectually most of the time. But there was one thing I could do. As a journalist I could tell the truth about Hungary in1956 and what followed. And that is what I have always tried to do.