Of all the bonds that combine to sustain a nation, memory is perhaps the most essential. It ensures that most of the other bonds – language, loyalties, poetry and songs, shared sacrifices – are extended through time. They continue to live when the present moment fades. It may even be that the memory of a shared past unites people far more deeply than the experiences it preserves did at the time. A wedding today, however happy, will be a nervous nightmare; a wedding remembered over photographs thirty years later will glow in the memory. We treasure our memories, it is rightly said, and they belong to us in a peculiarly intimate way. As an indulgent commissar says to comfort Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka for the absence of her lost lover in Paris: “They can’t censor our memories.”
The memory of a nation encompasses many millions of individual memories. And when the memory is of 1956, dateline Budapest, that means many millions of individual fates, including loves lost or left behind, as well as the collective fate of the Hungarian people. Both this and the previous issue of Hungarian Review are devoted principally to collecting and recording both sorts of memory.
Two volumes are not large enough for the task. But the range of even a selection of those memories is remarkable. They include the testimony of István B. Rácz, a Smallholder MP imprisoned by the Communists, on the spontaneous cooperation of different guerrilla factions fighting in Budapest’s ferocious street fighting; a moment-by-moment account from a former British Ambassador of how Imre Nagy was restored to power, trusted in negotiations, given a compromise that entailed Hungarian independence, betrayed, and finally sacrificed – all by Moscow; an extract from the diary of writer Gyula Illyés who, hearing in a basement a smooth BBC voice regretting help will not come from the West, reading the balanced and qualified judgements of Sartre, suspects cynicism and cowardice under the tears and sympathy; a history by David A. J. Reynolds of how the Communist regime, having press-ganged popular footballers into the service of its public relations, lost them to the Revolution and abroad; and a prophetic extract from a memorandum – written by the statesman István Bibó, whom Russian soldiers found protecting the Parliament alone – on the duty of Europe to keep Hungary’s hopes alive.
In Bibó’s eyes, however, Hungarians too had a duty: “to hold onto the flag of their revolution in the face of slander, forgetting, and weariness – it is the flag of a freer mankind”.
And Bibó’s prophetic injunction came to pass. Memories of 1956 were strong and vivid in the Western statesmen Gyula Kodolányi met when, after 1989, he accompanied József Antall, Hungary’s democratic leader after the Wall fell. They remembered Hungary’s revolution as a special influence in their political development.
Nor should it be forgotten that Hungary’s other great moment in the Cold War – when it opened the barrier that allowed thousands of people to escape to the West and started the erosion of Soviet power that led to the liberation of all of Europe – was the work of many Hungarians some of whom had been their country’s enemies not long before. Remembering that, it is hard not to recall Lincoln’s words, written on the eve of a civil war rather than its morrow, but apposite to both occasions:
The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.